As important as the right plants are, they can’t do ALL the work for you. A great garden still requires a lot of preparation and maintenance to develop. Before you begin planting in the spring, here is a checklist of the 8 steps you should take to prepare your garden for a successful season:
1. Get your shed in order.
Go over your tools. Sharpen blades, oil hinges, and think about expanding or upgrading your collection. Use a mill file to sharpen blades, then add penetrating oil to remove and prevent corrosion. You would be surprised how much easier it is to dig or cut with a sharp, well-oiled implement; the right tools will make the whole season much easier!
You should also take this opportunity to replenish your supplies. Make sure you have enough fertilizer and soil amendments on hand. Replenish your supply of plant supports, and pre-assemble any structures like tomato cages that you want to make for yourself. It is a lot easier to do get this work done in your shed while the weather is still icky than to have to worry about it later in spring when there is plenty of things you would rather be doing outside.
2. Clear out weeds, mulch, and debris.
Do a spring cleaning of the area, removing anything in the way until you are back to the bare soil. Dead organic matter can go on the compost pile to break down. Well-composted mulch or organic matter can stay right where it is to be incorporated into the soil, but “fresh” mulch needs to be raked away to expose the soil.
Your main concern is any weeds that might still be alive. These must be removed from the soil and either burned or placed in the middle of a working compost pile where the heat will kill it before any seeds can germinate. You don’t want to leave any living weeds around, or they might come back and try to compete with your garden plants!
Many trees or shrubs can use a good pruning this time of year, especially those that bloom on new wood. Late winter/early spring is the perfect time to prune back old wood because you can see the branch structure well and you can shape the plant before the buds break dormancy and the plant starts investing energy in its branches. Some of the plants you want to prune at this time of year are: Buddleia (Butterfly Bush), Cornus Canadensis (Flowering Dogwood), Lonicera (Honeysuckle), Hydrangea paniculata, Cercis (Redbud), summer-blooming Spirea, Lagerstroemia (Crepe Myrtle), Rose, and Wisteria. Early spring is also the perfect time to prune and shape woody ornamentals.
Before you go snip-happy, though, there are a couple of things to consider. First you should use a clean rag and some isopropyl alcohol to sterilize your pruners before each cut. This precaution keeps you from inadvertently spreading plant disease all around the garden. You wouldn’t want a surgeon cutting into you without sterilizing the blade first, would you? Secondly, there are many plants that you should NOT prune at this time of year because they bloom on old wood. Plants that you should wait until after the bloom season to prune include: spring-blooming Spirea, Camellia, Rhododendron (including Azalea), Forsythia, Hydrangea Macrophylla (Bigleaf), Syringa (Lilac), Magnolia, Kalmia (Mountain Laurel), and Weigela.
Whenever you prune your plants, it is a good practice to add a little fertilizer to the soil to ensure that the plant has the nutrients on hand to heal its wounds quickly.
4. Prepare the soil.
Once the frost has lifted and the soil is workable, start preparing your garden beds. In winter, soil tends to become compacted, so the first thing you want to do is loosen it back up by tilling or turning it. Using a tiller or a sharp spade, work the soil to a depth of 12 to 14 inches to loosen it up. Any mulch or leaf litter that is well-composted should be mixed right in, but if it is too fresh, you should remove it first.
Next add compost and amendments. You can use a soil test to see where you pH and nutrient levels are, which will tell you what type of materials you might want to add. If you have poor or clay-based soil, it is especially important to add a healthy layer of compost to improve the soil’s texture, nutrient content, and moisture-retention. Then rake the soil level and water it lightly to help it settle and release air pockets.
If your existing soil is particularly poor, the easiest option might just be to rise above it with a raised garden bed.
5. Set up new planters and garden beds.
It is easy to get excited by the beautiful new varieties you come across in catalogs and end up ordering more plants than you have places to put them! Now is the time of year to build garden beds, install shepherd’s hooks or window boxes, and order new pots to ensure that you have enough of a venue to showcase all your gorgeous new plants.
6. Divide perennials like Daylilies.
Some perennials tend to crowd each other out, causing their performance to deteriorate year over year. Daylilies, Shasta Daisies, Hostas, and many others all benefit from being divided in early spring. Before the growing season takes off, give these plants room to spread out by following these simple steps: 1. Dig out around the perimeter of the clump, giving a wide berth so as not to damage the roots. 2. Dig under the plant root ball and lift it out of the ground. 3. Try to disentangle the roots by hand and pull apart the distinct root stocks/tubers. In some places it will be necessary to cut the clump apart with a knife. 4. Evenly space the new divisions over a larger area and re-plant them immediately. This will improve the bloom show of these perennials, and it is a cheap and easy way to propagate a larger collection!
Note: If your clump of perennials is too large to pull out of the ground, you may have to divide them while they are still in the ground by inserting two garden forks back-to-back into the middle of the clump and carefully pushing them apart, then lifting out the divisions for re-planting.
7. Early Planting
Get the first wave of planting done. Many plants can be started indoors this time of year for planting out in spring, and particularly hardy vegetables (onions, potatoes, artichokes, and some lettuces) are ready to be planted now. Look at the plant information for whatever you intend to plant.
Bulbs and Perennials tend to be straightforward to plant—it’s really just dig, drop, done! Dig the hole at the proper depth and spacing, add any soil amendments necessary, add the bulb/root ball and be sure that the crown is right at soil level, then fill in the hole and water thoroughly.
With Trees and Shrubs, here is a tip to help those roots settle in to their new home: the moat method. Again you should dig a hole plenty large and wide enough to accommodate the plant’s roots, and add a cone of amended soil for the roots to rest on, then fill in the hole with more amended soil. But before you water in, create a ring of soil around the plant a bit wider than the original hole. This ring will act like a berm while you water the plant in, allowing you to really get the deep saturation necessary without turning the whole area into a mud pit. See the diagram for details.
8. Apply mulch.
Last but not least, apply a thick layer of mulch wherever you can. Mulch is much more effective at keeping weeds from becoming established if you can get it in place before the weeds start sprouting. You might still be waiting to plant out in lots of areas, or you might have seeds germinating that you don’t want to bury in mulch. You can avoid a lot of this conflict if you have already started your seedlings indoors, if you are working around established plants, or if you buy well-established plants in the nursery. Just don’t wait too long to mulch an area, or the weeds will beat you there!