Article by Eric Stewart
If you are like me, by the time the snow finally melts, you are itching to get outside and play in the dirt. Though snow may still threaten as late as April, there are lots of projects one can do now to get a head start on a great garden.
ORGANIZE & PREP YOUR TOOLS
Even if the weather outside is still chilly, one can begin the gardening season by tidying up that disorganized shed or garage. If your garage is like mine, this is no easy undertaking. However, a little spring cleaning never hurt anybody, and it is far more pleasant to begin the season with an organized work space than with a cluttered disaster area—especially since it is likely to become more cluttered and disastrous as the season progresses. To begin, consolidate all of your gardening tools in one area. Visit the local hardware store and consider purchasing hooks or hangers to organize your tools on the wall and open up needed floor space. A lidless garbage can makes a convenient catch-all for long-handled rakes, shovels, and gardening stakes. While you’re organizing things, make sure that your tools are clean and in good working order. A tub of soapy water, a stiff wire brush for scrubbing, and a can of oil all come in handy. Then, either repair or replace what is needed. Access to a bicycle pump is also a good idea for maintaining those wheelbarrows and garden carts as few things are more annoying than filling a wheelbarrow with soil or gravel only to find that the tire has gone flat over the winter. If your favorite hand tools have wooden or green plastic handles, consider dabbing on a bit of brightly colored exterior paint so that they are easily spotted if accidentally left in a planting bed or in the lawn. If space permits and you have a sturdy old table, consider using it as a potting bench. Such a setup is far better (and far less messy) than potting up plants in the kitchen sink, which is what I used to do. Also, write down a wish-list of desired garden tools, trees, or shrubs and present this to friends and family who may be wondering what to get you for that upcoming birthday.
SPRING GARDEN CLEAN-UP
On a pleasant early spring morning, few things are more satisfying after a long, cold winter than getting outdoors and puttering about in the yard. Now is the time to cut back any remaining spent foliage from last season’s growth in your perennial beds to make way for new growth in the spring. If you have a compost pile, great! Add these clippings to the heap. If you don’t have a compost pile, consider making room for one in an out-of-the-way corner of the yard. Most all organic waste is suitable for composting with the e xception of diseased plant material, kitchen scraps containing meat byproducts, and/or waste from household pets. A good rule of thumb is if you wouldn’t want to touch it, don’t add it to the pile.
Now is also the time to cut down those hardy, decorative grasses that were left standing to provide winter interest. These should be cut as low as pos sible in order to make way for the fresh young shoots. While doing this, note which ones may need to be divided when the weather permits. A clump that shows new growth around the perimeter with a “dead zone” in the middle is an ideal candidate for division. Rake out debris from planting beds and from under shrubs. This is also an excellent time to cut back a ny damaged or dead limbs from shrubs and trees as their branching structure is easily seen and accessible. For flowering shrubs and trees (such as forsythia, lilac, hydrangeas, crabapples, magnolia, etc.), save major pruning for later in the season after they have bloomed so as not to cut off this year’s floral display.
GET YOUR HANDS DIRTY
Pansies and violas are readily available early in the season at garden centers and nurseries and are perfect for providing a bit of spring color. Also, take a look at areas of your garden that could benefit from the addition of some spring flowering bulbs. Make a mental note of these locations for fall planting. Though bulbs such as tulips and deer-resistant daffodils and alliums are best planted from October to December, you can cheat Mother Nature and purchase bulbs already sprouting in nursery pots and plug these in where desired right now for a quick jolt of color. This is also true for tall, dramatic bi-annual foxgloves which also flourish in cool spring weather and bloom in shades of white and pink.
Hellebores—a deer-resistant, early-blooming perennial that features large, shiny-green leaves and drooping flowers in a wide variety of colors—are also commonly found this time of year and make an excellent addition to partially shaded beds. These plants are practically fool-proof and one of my all-time favorites. Untroubled by critters and other pests, hellebores soon grow to form clumps 12” tall and 2-3’ wide. They are especially effective on slopes, in raised beds, or anywhere that one can get a good look at their remarkable, downward facing blooms. In areas with mild winters or in protected spots away from drying winter winds, the foliage remains green all winter. Where happy, these hardy plants reseed with abandon, and make a wonderful woodland groundcover.
Though most annuals should not be planted until after the threat of frost has passed (in our region, this usually means after Mother's Day), there are some annuals that thrive in the cool, spring temperatures. California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is the state flower of California and a perennial in USDA zones 7-11. In our region, however, it is treated as an annual groundcover that boasts bright orange blooms and attractive, gray-green, fern-like foliage. It is ideal for use in sunny, well drained areas and is also draught tolerant. Sow seeds of California Poppy as soon as the ground can be worked, 4-6 weeks before the last frost. This same stratagem is also appropriate for corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas) and breadseed poppy, aka opium poppy (Papaver somniferum). Both species make wonderful flowers for the garden or the vase and bloom in shades of pink, white, and red. Incredibly easy to grow, most poppy seeds can even be sown while a bit of snow is still on the ground.
Borage (Borago officinalis) is another wonderfully easy annual for early season sowing. This wonderfully decorative and useful herb should have a space in every sunny garden. Maturing to perhaps 2’ high, Borage produces masses of edible, star-shaped blue flowers which are excellent for attracting bees to the garden and make colorful additions to drinks, ice cubes, desserts, and salads. Its fragrance is said to promote a feeling of amity and goodwill. The aromatic foliage is highly textured and covered in fine, silvery, hair-like growths that catch the light and make it an interesting, deer-proof addition to less-formal herb gardens, beds, and borders. As with poppies, Borage does not take kindly to transplanting and should be sown directly in the garden as soon as the soil can be worked, 4-6 weeks prior to the last frost.
Now go out and plant something.
Eric Stewart is a garden designer, writer, and fine artist who lives in Accord, NY.
He may reached at Greenman Garden Design, 845-687-9166 or at email@example.com.