Preparing Your Garden for Spring

Preparing Your Garden for Spring

All true gardeners can’t wait for spring to arrive. We are checking our garden beds watching for the first signs that winter is over. When the first crocus,  tulips and daffodils start to poke through the soil and your favorite perennial flowers start to show life, it might actually be time to put the winter jacket and boots away for the year. It’s time to get out the garden boots and start the spring cleanup.

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When to Start Preparing Your Garden for Spring

For those gardeners who live in the northern states, you and your gardens have endured months of below freezing temperatures and gardens buried under snow. These are growing zones that are true dormant areas. All plants that survive these severe conditions have adapted by going dormant for the winter, much like animals hibernate. 

Spring cleanup should not start until about six to eight weeks before the last frost date for your zone. Even then, remember that timing is an estimate, so you need to be prepared to protect your plants again if needed. Watch for signs like the forsythia shrubs and the daffodils blooming. If you live in a non-dormant area, like Florida, January is usually a good time to start your spring preparations.

It is becoming more of a challenge to determine when to start working on spring cleanup. Climate changes due to global warming have affected growing conditions in all areas of the country. Follow the guidelines for your growing zone and keep a close eye on the long-range weather forecast during this critical time for your gardens. 

covering lemon tree frost protection

When to Start Removing Winter Protection

The biggest mistake a northern gardener can make in spring is to start the cleanup too early. Plants should remain mulched and covered until all danger of a hard freeze is over. As long as you purchase plants and beautiful flowers for sale that are rated hardy for your growing zone, the cold won't cause damage. However, it is the inconsistent temperatures of spring when a day in the 40s can be followed by a night in the 20s that can cause problems for plants

By removing the winter protection and extra mulch and exposing the soil to the warm temperatures of the day, that plant will want to break dormancy. It will start to bud and even flower. Those young shoots and flowers are very susceptible to the freezing temperatures and could cause the young growth to die off and even cause damage to the branches it grew from. 

In addition, the plant could heave. This is caused by the freeze/thaw conditions which will cause the plant root system to be lifted up and out of the ground. With the roots exposed to the cold, the likelihood of severe damage or death of the plant is probable.

So, what can you do in these first months? Start with your lawn cleanup. Remove any small branches that fell from the trees during winter storms. Pick up the pine cones. If you have large amounts of leaves that have accumulated in parts of your yard, clean those and add to your compost bin. Leave the scattered leaves on the lawn to be chopped with your mulching mower. They will easily decompose and add nutrition to your lawn.

Testing Your Soil

Testing Your Soil

This is the perfect time to take a soil test. A soil test will tell you the nutrient level of your soil as well as the pH. Once the soil has thawed and is workable, you will be able to take a good soil sample. If you have never tested your soil before, it may be a good idea to test several areas of your yard and gardens. 

You could have depleted the amount of nitrogen in the vegetable garden and the rest of your gardens have adequate amounts of nitrogen. By taking samples from several areas, you will have a good idea of the general health of your soil and deficiencies in specific gardens. You can test your soil using a home test kit, which will tell you the levels of the main nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. 

Some kits will also give you the pH of your soil. The pH will tell you if your soil is acidic or alkaline. Another option is to have your soil tested professionally. Most County Extension offices provide this service to gardeners. In addition to the information the home test will give you, the Extension service will also test the levels of micronutrients like iron, calcium and sulfur. 

variety of soil types

They also evaluate the type of soil you have. Besides all the levels of nutrients, the Extension service will give recommendations on how to amend your soil to give your plants the healthiest growing soil possible. Once a year testing by the Extension service and home testing throughout the summer months will help you to monitor the success of your amendments and alert you to any need for further supplements. 

Spring is the perfect time to make corrections to the soil. It gets your plants off to the best start for the growing season. Start the garden bed cleanup with pruning when the buds start swelling on the branches and danger of frost is over. Remember that broken or damaged branches should be pruned as soon as possible. 

The wounded branch is a perfect entry point for disease and insects. A clean cut will heal over quickly and prevent further damage. Wait until you have completed the cleanup and pruning before you add amendments and fertilizer.  However, be sure to make amendments before the new mulch goes down. 

determining rose pruning

Prune Your Roses

You also should prune your roses at this time. If you live in the northern grow zones, it is not unusual to have some die back of your rose bushes. Remove any dead branches. If you are not sure where the branch should be cut, do a little scrape on the branch. If the wood is brown, it is dead. The branch should be white or green under the surface. 

Another good way to tell is by checking the buds. If they are swelling, that part of the cane is alive. Remember to prune on an angle and choose a bud that faces outward rather than into the rose bush. Make the cut about ¼ inch above the bud. 

Each different type of rose needs slightly different pruning. For example:

  • Shrub Rose — Usually pruned to maintain its shape and to control unruly canes. Most shrub roses bloom on old wood so pruning in the spring will remove some blooms. Wait until after the bloom of flowers to prune. 
  • Tea Roses — Should be pruned to about five strong canes. To achieve the beautiful long stems, they also need to be pruned by one-third or more of the length. 
  • Knock Out Roses — Should always be pruned in the spring. This type of rose will triple in size during the summer so prune to one-third the size you want the bush to be. 

The pruning will be determined by the types of roses you are growing. If you aren’t sure, consult our video library for expert advice.

If your rose is grafted, you should watch for any sucker growth from the root. The root is used to give the rose a strong and hardy root system. It is not the root that your hybrid rose started with. The rose has been grafted to the stronger root system. A telltale sign is the bulge at the bottom of the rose bush. 

If any shoot starts to grow from below that bulge, it will not have the beautiful roses that you want. This sucker growth should be removed by simply breaking it off the plant. If you aren’t sure if the branch is a sucker or not, wait until it grows a little bigger. The leaves will look slightly different, and the flowers will, too. This is also the time to cut back old growth on perennials as you see new growth emerge. 

winter food and home

Remove All the Debris from the Garden

Many gardeners leave the dried plant material like grasses for interest in the winter garden. Coneflower seed heads are a great food source for birds during the winter. 

These plants can also be the winter home for beneficial insects and most butterflies that winter in the garden or on tree bark. If you remove the debris before these insects are ready, you will lose the benefits they provide. Once it is warm enough for the plants to grow, the insects should also be ready and on the move. 

If you live in the northern grow zones, this is also the time to remove any winter protection. Once all danger of frost and freeze is over, remove any wrapping that you used to protect the canes. Most northern gardeners also mound soil around the graft union and slightly above to protect the rose. This will also need to be removed as the spring progresses. 

Pull back any mulch and remove the excess soil using a gentle stream from your hose. Remove any dead leaves that remain on the bush or have fallen on the ground. Dispose of these and any pruned branches in the compost or trash. Leaves from trees can be left if you prefer as they will break down and feed the soil.  

If you had a problem with any fungus or disease last season, never add that material to your compost as it will spread the problem to other areas of your gardens. If you found by testing that the soil needs some amendments, this is the time to add them and to adjust the pH if needed. 

Amendments like lime and alfalfa pellets to adjust the pH should always be put under the mulch at the soil level. Do not add the amendments over the mulch. If you do, it may erode or sit on top of the mulch and never reach the soil or plants during the growing season. Pull the existing mulch back from the plants and apply directly to the soil.

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perennials garden with bench

Applying Fertilizer 

Fertilizer should not be applied until the plants have broken dormancy and all danger of frost is over. If you apply fertilizer too early, the plant will be stimulated to grow and send out shoots. These young shoots will be very susceptible to the cold temperatures and will not survive. 

When the new shoots die off, it can stress the plant itself or even kill the plant. The best and safest time to fertilize your plants is after they send up new shoots and the weather forecast eliminates the danger of frost. This is true for roses also. Nature’s way of telling you when to fertilize is when you see the first true sets of leaves emerging from your roses. 

This is also the time to apply spray to your roses if you prefer to use those products. There are sprays made specifically for roses that will protect them from insect damage and from disease like black spot. Use your sprays after all danger of frost is past and the rose is starting to leaf out.

Finally, after all soil amendments are made, the debris removed and fertilizing completed, it is time to replace and refresh the mulch. A two- to three-inch layer of mulch will keep the soil temperature stable, and conserve water throughout the year. Mulch will break down into compost naturally over time so add more mulch where necessary and, of course, mulch any new garden beds you have developed.

Your garden and landscape are now ready for the spring to provide beauty and productivity for another wonderful summer.

Image Credits



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Danita Delimont/

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