Preparing the Garden In Spring

| Prepare

There’s nothing like the approach of spring to get you itching to spend time in the garden. If the snow still lies menacingly on the ground where you live, you may feel like there’s not much you can do – yet. But those weeks after winter (or a long, cold spring) wanes and before the all-clear date for frost-free weather are some of the best prep time of the year for any garden or landscape.

Around my house, I keep busy with a number of simple but important projects that make a noticeable difference for the rest of the season and beyond. Here are just a few of the projects that keep me active and outside on those early-spring weekends.

Landscape border

It’s much of the prep work I do now – before my landscape greens up and leafs out – that will have everything looking this lush and healthy in the summer months to come.

Prep Your Garden Beds

I never miss an opportunity to prep beds between the seasons of my cool season crops coming out and my warm season classics going in. The now empty beds are easier to access without the risk or challenge of working around and potentially damaging plants still in the ground.

Working to improve the soil right now is so important. Even if you need to brush off a layer of snow, oftentimes early spring temperatures have warmed enough to soften the soil. If you’re like me and garden in raised beds, that soil is warming up and softening more quickly than an in-ground bed. If you aren’t gardening in raised beds, maybe this year it’s time to try.

Many of the nutrients that were in the soil last growing season are likely gone now – having been taking up by the previous plants, or decomposed or leached away. Even the best soil – rich in organic matter – needs a steady supply of new amendments a couple of times during the year to replenish what has been removed or diminished. Just adding fertilizer won’t accomplish the development of a robust soil which can make for more bountiful crops.

It’s just as easy and more beneficial to add a one or two inch layer of compost. If your soil is healthy, and you’ve made a habit of adding organic materials, you don’t even need to work that compost into the soil. The microbes that live in the soil will do the work for you.

Prep your garden

At the beginning of each season while my beds are empty, I add a one or two inch layer of compost. Sometimes, I leave it on the surface to let the microbes do the work, this year’s cooler temps mean I’m scratching it lightly in to the surface to foster the incorporation process.

If your soil is “tired” and a little neglected (which is often the case!), work the compost into the top six inches of the garden bed. Shredded or rotted leaves or composted wood chips work well too, and a good granular nitrogen source is blood meal. I like the granular form, since it stays in the soil and doesn’t leach – meaning it’s there working through the season.

These organic amendments are ideal for continuing to build my garden soil and improve the structure, while the nitrogen is essential for new and establishing edible plants. Plus, non-burning organic sources mean I don’t have to worry about harming my tender new plants (as is often the case with synthetic options). It’s a little like taking my vegetable garden off of a “junk-food fertilizer” diet and putting it on the “whole foods” diet of organic nutrients.

You can read more on why I stick with organic fertilizers in a blog I wrote comparing synthetic with organic nutrients. It’s common for gardeners to reach for the synthetic options, but I encourage you to understand your options before making your purchase. It might surprise you to learn that the fail rate is higher when using synthetics.

Fertilize Trees and Shrubs

Just as my new bedding plants need to get off to a good start with nutrient-rich soil, established trees and shrubs also benefit from a top dressing of organic nutrients. While I’m in amendment mode, I make the rounds and apply a generous amount of organic fertilizer or compost to the root zones.

I like to use an organic-based, slow-release nutrient source for all my trees and shrubs when I’m adding fertilizer. I’ve seen too many plants ruined by even a slightly heavy-handed application of synthetic fertilizers. My favorite is Milorganite, which is non-burning and worry-free.

Nutrient demands will be high with new growth coming on. Using early spring to put nutrients back into the soil in time for the stresses of the new season and brutal summer will pay big dividends to the sustainability and vigor of your plants and trees and overall landscape. Healthy trees and shrubs are better able to withstand drought or other extreme conditions.

Fertilizing shrubs

Applying organic nutrients, like compost, to the trees and shrubs in my landscape primes them for new growth and strengthens them to better withstand the stresses of the coming summer heat.

Weed Now for Less Work Later

As an organic gardener, most of my weeding is done by hand. Through the years, I’ve realized that the sooner I catch weeds early in the season, the less problem they become overall later on. They might be under spring snow now, but keep an eye out for the young and determined upstarts!

By starting in early spring and pulling what you see as you come upon them, you are striking before those weeds have an opportunity to go to seed and become too much to handle by summer. My favorite tool is a scuffle hoe. I also keep a weeding knife in my pruning holster (yes, I have a pruning holster), so it’s by my side as I’m working around the yard. Having the right tool at the ready goes a long way to making your time in the garden and landscape more relaxing, and it makes for one less thing you have to get back to later.

My other trick for keeping weeds at bay is a step I take just once or twice a year that saves me hours of weeding time throughout the growing season. It’s one of my favorite things, and it will help your garden in many ways too. You can read about it under the Protocol section of my Organic Weed Control article.

Scuffle hoe

My favorite weeding tool is my scuffle hoe, and getting to weeds in the early days of spring prevents them from growing stronger and setting seed.

Prune Before It’s Too Late

You may not realize it, but usually the best looking trees get plenty of attention during the dormant months. Late winter to early spring are the best times for annual pruning, because you can still see clearly into the tree canopy or through the shrub structure—before it leafs out and access becomes much more challenging.

Annual vigilance to keep the canopy or structure from becoming too crowded; removing dead, diseased, or crossing branches; and thinning out competing or inwardly growing branches can make a huge difference in the overall health and general appearance of any tree.

If your trees and shrubs are beginning to bud out, it’s best to wait to do much pruning until next year – just set yourself a reminder now while you are thinking of it. However, anytime is the perfect time to to remove dead or diseased branches, and these early weeks of the year are the perfect time to spot those.

Spring shrub pruning

It’s easier to spot crossing, dead or diseased branches in your trees and shrubs now – before they set on foliage. This is also the perfect time to prune for shape.

You may need to hire a certified arborist, but for my money, it’s well worth the price. I love my trees, and the larger specimens are irreplaceable. Better to invest a little money now to keep your specimen trees healthy and looking great. For smaller trees, most homeowners – using pole pruners and pruning saws (along with a decent ladder) – can easily handle this project.

If you need a pruning refresher, check out my blog or my video tutorials. You don’t have to remember all these details from year-to-year. You just need to know where to go for a good resource.

I’ve got your back.

Stuck Indoors

Okay, so maybe it’s still too cold where you garden to be lured by tasks outside.  Use your time stuck indoors to prepare your tools and explore a new method to keep your gardening life organized. Don’t wait to get these small-but-important projects underway until Mother Nature finally cooperates and releases the growing season into full swing.

Links & Resources

Episode 007: Organic Weed Control with Jeff Gillman

Episode 016: Composting Guide A to Z: The Quick and Dirty on Everything Compost

Episode 040: Prepping Your Garden For Spring: 10 Things To Do Now

Episode 042: Raised Bed Gardening, Pt. 1 

Episode 046: Organizing Your Gardening Life 

joegardenerTV: Biggest Pruning Mistakes And How to Avoid Them

joegardener Blog: Pruning 101: The Pruning Basics from A to Z 

joegardener Blog: The Numbers on Fertilizer Labels, What They Mean

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