by Erin Hynes
After a long winter, you're eager to get busy in the yard when the first warm day arrives. And while there certainly are tasks you can do even before the last snow pile melts, some you must put off until juuust the right time. Here's a rundown of what to do, and when.
Tune Up Your Tools
On those wonderful unusually warm days in early spring, when it's too early to work in the garden, get your garden tools ready.
- Take your spade and hoe to a hardware store to have them sharpened on a wheel — you can sharpen them yourself the rest of the season with a file.
- Tune up your mower or lawn tractor. For instructions for tuning a lawn mower, see our project Tune up a lawn mower.
- Turn on your outdoor faucet, attach your garden hoses and turn the water on full strength to reveal any leaks. You can repair small leaks with repair tape and large leaks by cutting out the section with the hole and adding connectors to the cut ends.
Cut Back Perennials and Grasses
The browned stems and dried flowerheads on your flowering perennials and ornamental grasses made your garden look less desolate during the winter. Before growth resumes, cut off that old growth — it doesn't hurt the plant if you leave it, it just looks bad.
Some plants are soft enough to just require a snip with scissors, but for those with woodier stems, like Russian sage, grab your hand pruners or loppers. For giant stands of the ornamental grass Miscanthus, you might have to resort to a pruning saw to hack through the tough leaves.
Rake Back Mulch
When most of the garden has awakened, rake the mulch to the edge of plant beds so the sun can warm and dry the soil. Warm soil really speeds up plant growth. Just don't rake it aside too early, because plants need protection from late freezes. How early is "too early" is something you learn with experience, but don't be fooled when plants on the warm south side of buildings pop up.
Prune Flowering Shrubs
In early spring, prune shrubs that bloom in summer, like abelia, butterfly bush, crepe myrtle, PeeGee and Tardiva hydrangeas, and potentilla. For spring-bloomers such as lilac, wait until they finish flowering.
Control Crabgrass at the Right Time
Crabgrass is an annual weed — it grows from seeds, not from roots that survive the winter. That's why you have to apply a weed control product just as the seeds start to sprout. That's usually about the time crocuses start blooming and forsythias leaf out.
You can control crabgrass organically, and fertilize your lawn at the same time, with corn gluten meal. You can also find many synthetic crabgrass herbicides on the market. Read and follow the label instructions carefully.
Get Beds Ready, When the Dirt Is Ready
Before you dig into your garden, make sure the soil is dry enough to be worked; digging and turning wet soil damages the soil structure, leaving you with rock-like clods. To check, sqeeze a handful of soil into a ball, then drop it. If it breaks apart, you're good to go.
Get beds ready by gently turning the soil with a spade or spading fork, working in compost or rotted manure. Rake the surface smooth with a metal garden rake. If time allows, let the prepared bed sit for a few weeks before you plant, so the soil can settle.
Fertilize the Lawn, But Not Too Early
Hold off fertilizing the lawn until you've had to mow a few times. Fertilizing before the grass is actively growing is a waste, because the roots can't absorb the nitrogen — instead, the nitrogen washes away.
When it's time to fertilize, choose one of the many organic fertilizers on the market. They release their nutrients slowly, which is healthier for the grass. If you plan to fertilize again in late summer or early fall, apply half the amount recommended on the bag. Water the lawn after spreading the fertilizer, if the instructions say to do so.
Erin Hynes authored several books about gardening.