How to get your garden ready to start a healthy and productive year!
This season is mostly preparation; laying the groundwork so your plants get a good start and everything they need to grow large and healthy! Spring can be defined as the season (typically 3 months) after the snow melts, overnight freezes cease, and the soil warms up. Above ground, the trees and shrubs’ buds swell and bloom.
Trees & Woody Perennials (Plants that leave woody stems aboveground over winter)
First, fertilize any deciduous trees and woody shrubs like rhododendron/azaleas and roses. If you can see their bare stems, place a granular, all-purpose fertilizer (special acidic one for acid-loving plants like rhododendrons) in a circle around them (not too near the stems) and water it in thoroughly. The water will take it down into the soil profile and make it available for the roots!
Fertilizer note: Most fertilizer will have a xx-xx-xx number; this is its NPK (Nitrogen, Phosporus, Potassium). All-purpose fertilizer often has ‘balanced’ numbers like 10-10-10. Some plants require more Nitrogen, so a higher number in front (like 25-10-10, etc) may be a better choice.
Blooming plants often require more Phosporus, so a higher middle number (10-15-10, etc) could be an option. Please be careful, however, to use it sparingly – Phosporus is easily mobile in water, and is a major pollutant in many ecosystems due to runoff.
Remove winter mulch CAREFULLY, and only when danger of chilling temperatures is gone. If you can, remove it in steps, taking away some each day to acclimatize the plants to the temperature/light changes. If weather is up and down, remove during the day and CAREFULLY recover for cool nights to prevent damage to tender shoots. It’s better to remove too late than too early.
Herbaceous Perennials & Tender Bulbs
If you find any frost-heaved plants (plants pushed up out of the ground by freeze/thaw cycles) you can
- Carefully tamp down with your foot and sprinkle extra soil over the crown
- Lift/dig entirely out and replace deeper
- Lift/dig entirely out and divide, replacing part and moving part
Once herbaceous perennial plants’ shoots are 2-4 inches tall (and not more!) you can dig and divide to share or increase your garden! ‘Herbaceous’ plants are plants whose stems are not woody and do not persist above-ground over the winter. All above-ground plant parts die back to soil level. We have a guide to digging and dividing hostas at Digging and Dividing Hostas!
If you’re not digging and dividing (or have just finished) once shoots are up you can fertilize your herbaceous perennials too! Again, a granular fertilizer applied in a circle (not too close to shoots!) and then watered in well is a good head start for plants.
Trim off old, weathered foliage and spent flowers on perennials like Heuchera (Coral Bells). We have a video on how to do it at Heuchera Videos!
Plant tender bulbs like Lilies, Gladiolus, and Dahlias after last average frost date (look up average frost dates for your area online, or contact local university or county horticulture extension program). Be ready to cover them if there is a late freeze!
Remove all spent flowers from Spring bulbs as they die (leaving foliage intact) and fertilize after with bone meal or bulb fertilizer.
Lawns & Vegetable Gardens
Rake lawns (especially dead, matted spots) when they come out of dormancy and start greening up (helps introduce light and air to waiting shoots) and reseed bare spots. Once seed starts germinating/getting established, fertilize.
Amend annual vegetable beds with fertilizer and manure, working it into the soil or topdressing as you prefer. Fertilize and/or topdress manure on perennial vegetables like rhubarb, berries, asparagus, etc.
Hardy vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower, peas, spinach, etc can be seeded or planted outside now. Non-hardy vegetables like tomatoes can be started indoors at this time.
Check all your raised beds, fences, and trellises carefully, and repair where necessary.
Hoses & Tools
If you want to try more low-key irrigation (saves water and money!) purchase or make DIY ‘soaker hoses’ (hoses with holes along the length) to slowly water trees and shrubs. These hoses apply water at the soil level, meaning water isn’t wasted to wind or excessive evaporation; frequently it allows you to water less.
Place them around/through plantings (you can cover them with mulch to hide them and make an attractive bed!) and hook them up to a faucet you can either set on a timer or turn on/off as needed.
Clean and sharpen any garden tools like shovels, shears/clippers, trowels, hoes, etc.
Finally, weed any perennial beds and apply/freshen any summer mulches around trees and shrubs. Remember not to apply mulch too close to crowns/trunks! Pests can hide or tunnel through to get to them!
You can also begin to lay down slug bait/deterrents and treat lawns with Japanese Beetle larvae pesticide.