By Laurie Brown
After a several false starts, spring is finally really here. The cottonwoods went from bare to leafed out in about three days. The dandelions are blooming. The air feels different. It’s no longer raining (or snowing) every day, so it’s time to get out into the garden!
First is clean up. If there is any dead plant material left on the ground, gently pick up or rake it away. Be careful; some plants, like hostas and milkweeds, come up late and the growing tips of a hosta can be badly damaged by a poorly-placed foot. Don’t use a steel rake; a leaf rake will do less damage if it catches on a plant. Also remove any protection on plants like roses.
It’s time to do some pruning; anything dead, damaged, or crossing and rubbing on another branch should be removed. Up here, roses do not need a hard pruning. After cleaning them up, just remove about a third of the height of the canes. Do NOT prune antique, once blooming roses at this time or you will not get many blooms — they set flowers on old wood. Wait until right after they finish blooming. Clematis also needs cleaning up with some pruners; some types grow new vines from the ground — they should have all old growth removed. If they are budding on last year’s vines, remove about a third of the length of the vines; it will make them branch out.
It’s also time for dividing perennials that bloom in late summer or fall, like asters and tall sedums. Unless you absolutely have to, it’s best to divide spring blooming perennials in late summer. This is a good time to fertilize pretty much everything. Whether you use an organic fertilizer or a bag of 16-16-16, a balanced feeding is key. Too much nitrogen (the first number) will get the plants off to a good start with lots of greenery, but they need the other numbers for blooms, disease resistance and frost tolerance. Use an acid fertilizer on rhodies, azaleas and evergreens.
It’s warm enough to direct seed annuals like bachelor’s buttons, calendulas, and nigella; wait until June 1 for marigolds and zinnias. Start cucumbers and squash inside or in a hoop house; don’t plant them out until the soil warms up to 60 F. Start hardening off any houseplants that will spend the summer outside; avoid leaving them in direct sun for more than a short time at first and bring them in at night until it stays above 40 F.
Containers can be planted now as long as you have row cover to put over them. Discard any dead-plant material from last year; the soil can be reused for about three years as long as it had no diseased plants last year and you don’t see any bugs in it. Loosen the soil all the way down. If the soil needs replacing, toss it in the compost pile, and rinse the pot out to remove any insect eggs. Insert annuals, water in well, give a light dose of fertilizer and you’re done for now.
One thing you don’t want to clean up just yet are the dandelions. This early in the season, there aren’t many flowers for pollinators to visit yet, and the dandelions are a good source of food for them. Mow them down before they go to seed, though, or you’ll be buried in them next year!