I’m sure you’re in agreement when I say that this is one of the wackiest winters, weather-wise in memory.
We experienced record- breaking warm temperatures with only a handful of nights resulting in a hard frost. We were blessed with only a few snowfalls and the few we had were minor in accumulation. Now, it’s mid-February and gardeners are anxiously looking forward to spring.
I have compiled some of my favorite “Random Thoughts and Chores” for all us gardeners just itching to get out in our gardens. Number 1 is the most important thing NOT to do in your garden, but it’s something we all want to do on that first brilliant, blue-sky day.
1. Do NOT attempt to work the soil (even though you are chomping at the bit!) in your garden until it’s ready. Like everyone, I want to get outside with my shovel and dig away on the first sunny day when the temperature warms up. By digging in soil that is still wet and cool, you actually change the structure of your soil, and not for the better. When you dig, the soil on your shovel should look moist and fall apart relatively easily. If you pull big, wet clods out of your flower beds, you’ve done a disservice to your garden. That soil you just dug has becomes a big, solid mess that is nearly impossible to break up. So then, how do you know when it’s time to dig? Get that shovel and dig up a small amount, say the size of a softball. Does the soil stay tight and compact and are you unable to break it up? Is it wet, almost dripping water? If so, put it back and try again another day. Knowing when to walk away is a hard lesson to learn, but it’s one of the most basic lessons you need to learn
2. Do NOT rake all the debris off your beds unless you’re absolutely, positively 100% sure that we’re past the date of the last frost. Generally, that’s April 10thto the 15th. If you pull the protective layer of leaves and debris off your plants too soon, and we have a hard frost, you’ve killed any growth that the warmer temperatures have pushed up. If you are obsessed about making the garden beds look clean, pull the leaves back and mound it around your tree trunks. That way when we get a crazy frost in early May, you won’t have to run out and buy frost blankets. Additionally, you’ll need those decomposed leaves to cover your daffodils in the event we get a freaky late frost and the blooms have opened. You can preserve your gorgeous daffodil and other spring bulbs if you cover them with organic matter- regardless of how low the thermometer dips. It’s kind of like a free insurance policy!
3. Use your digital camera often. Start out this years growing season with numerous shots of each portion of your garden. Load them on your computer and vow to take photos of the same areas every 4 to 6 weeks. Keep all of them in a file dated “My garden- 2012” and I guarantee you’ll enjoy seeing how your garden progresses. If I look at a photo of a specific space in my garden, then follow it throughout the season, it allows me to be more objective and see the space for what it really is, warts and all. At the end of the growing season, make a series of photos chronicling your progress, beginning to end. I have no doubt that you’ll amaze family and friends with your progress! You can even print the best shots and make stationary out of them. Impress your family and friends!
4. To me, one of the most rewarding “chores” in the early spring is pruning my trees and shrubs. That glorious day in late February, full of promise and warm sun, is the perfect time to grab your pruners and saw and begin assessing which shrubs and trees need trimming. The first step is to trim away any dead or diseased branches. Cut the dead and diseased branches back to new growth. Next, move on to those branches that are rubbing against a neighbor. All that rubbing will produce scarring. Scarring will allow pests and disease to enter. You don’t want THAT in your garden do you? Again, cut the offending branches back until they don’t touch each other. If you have some shrubs that have been floundering, late February is the best time for rejuvenation pruning. This is hard pruning, taking a spindly shrub down to a foot or less in size. Some shrubs just get too leggy and a hard prune will produce a bushier plant. Don’t expect it to bounce back this year, though. It will need time to get back in shape. Give it love and fertilizer, and it will reward you for your efforts for years to come. Late February is also a great time to cut back some woody shrubs that have gotten too tall for their location. I have 3 stunning ‘tardiva’ Hydrangeas by my pool. They are over 12 feet tall and are just too big. Every 3 years I cut them back by 6 feet and they reward me with double the blooms I had the previous year. Just remember, before you head out to trim shrubs and trees, think about when they bloom. You don’t want to trim spring bloomers (forsythia, azaleas, lilacs, quince, dogwood) until AFTER this years bloom.
5. Weeding in late winter is real therapy! I’m probably crazy, but I do love to weed. I go out on the first clear day, pick a spot and just weed. I drag a trashcan and fill it up with weeds, making it easy as pie to dump the can into my compost pile. The reason why I love weeding so is that it forces me to take a hard look at everything in my flowerbeds. I’ll check out the trunks of my trees to see if rodents were using them as a chew toys, gnawing at the base. If so, I’ll place a wrap on it. I also check for deer damage- I lost a new dogwood because deer pulled a strip of bark off the tender trunk. Again, you can wrap the trees that deer have been chewing on. There is a white wrap that is sold specifically for wrapping trees, you can find it at most nurseries or big-box stores. Don’t buy the black, corrugated PVC piping and put it around your tree. It will heat the trunk of your tree when it’s warm and sunny, and it won’t dry out in the spring. It will remain moist- an invitation for insects and disease. Additionally, I can see if any of my perennials have heaved out of the ground over winter. It’s an easy fix- I just push them back into the soil with my heel. It’s caused by the freeze/thaw nature of our St. Louis winters.
6. Grab all your seed catalogues and do some daydreaming! Did you love the Morning glories your grandmother grew on her arbor? Do you remember planting Zinnias with your kids for a school project? Do Sunflowers remind you of your favorite book? As you turn each page of your catalog, pay close attention to the memories that flowers evoke- you’re doing some time travelling now, aren’t you? We all have our favorites, and they’re our favorites for so many reasons. Place an order for some seeds and wait for the big smile you’ll have as you unpack your treasures.
7. Go seed shopping! For less than $10 you can buy a few packages of Zinnias, sunflowers and Cosmos. Some plants are so easy to start as seeds that it doesn’t make a lick of sense to buy them in expensive 6 packs. Scratch them into the soil when the weather warms and you’ve got more cut flowers than you know what to do with. And that’s a REALLY GOOD thing! If possible, shop locally for your seeds. Bowood Farm, The Garden Gate Shop at Missouri Botanical Garden, Bayers Nursery and Greenscape gardens all carry flower and vegetable seed.