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Prepare your early spring garden for the season

Learn how to save your plants, when to prune damaged branches, when to mulch, and more.

As the first day of spring approaches, many of us are eager to jump into the new season. There may still be snow where you live. In this case, save this list for future use. However, gardeners in many areas can start now to clean up after winter and prepare their gardens for spring. Read on to learn how to save your plants, when to cut them back to encourage new growth, and surprising reasons why you should wait to mulch.

Don’t start too early

Post-winter cleaning and maintenance can be an exercise in anticipation and self-control like nothing else. Cutting back damaged shrubs and perennials too early can cause additional damage from late freezes or snowfall.

You may want to cut off all dead twigs and dried perennial stems, but leaving some, such as stems around the edges of your garden, can provide valuable habitat for nesting birds. Work the soil and turn the beds over until the soil is completely dry from winter snow or rain. Walking or working in wet soil can cause compaction.

Plant health assessment

One of the first steps in post-winter cleaning is to determine which plants survived the winter and which are damaged or undamaged. Just because a plant looks dead, whether it’s dry, brittle branches, discolored leaves, or weak stems, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s dead.

The quickest way to tell if a woody perennial or twig is dead is to scratch the bark with your fingernail. If the tissue under the bark is green, the branch is alive. If it’s firm and brown, it’s dead. Likewise, if the branches are bendy and flexible, they are alive. If it snaps when bent and the center looks brown, it’s dead.

Check for cold damage

Snow and frost can damage tender plants, causing stems and leaves to turn brown, and damaged tops can cause plants to die. Frost-damaged plants may appear dead, but their roots and tops are likely still alive. Wait until the last frost to cut off damaged stems and leaves. Until then, dead branches can actually help protect your plants from further cold damage.

Know when and how much to reduce

All dead branches and stems are good game for pruning. The question is when and to what extent. In general, wait until all risk of frost has passed except to prune dormant fruit trees. You can do it before then.

When pruning damaged branches of trees and woody perennials, cut them a few inches above the first viable bud, which looks green and fat or just above the start of a green, viable stem. Dead stems from last year’s perennials and other herbaceous plants can be cut back to the base of the plant.

Cuttings can stimulate spring growth, so once the weather warms you will see your cut plants producing lots of new shoots and leaves. As mentioned earlier, don’t cut down all the shrubs and perennials in your yard, but leave mulch and nesting material for wild birds.


Wait until the ornamental grass is cut
Dried leaves of ornamental grasses can add much-needed interest to your late winter and early spring garden. To maintain the texture of your garden, it is best to wait until April or May to cut them.

When you’re ready to cut again, gather the clump of grass with one hand and use sharp secateurs with the other hand to cut it into 6- to 8-inch pieces. Most warm season grasses begin new growth in May and June.

Prune fruit trees before their buds burst

If you haven’t already done so, do so now before your fruit trees’ buds swell, bloom or leaf out. You can do this yourself or hire a certified arborist to do it for you. Using sharp, sterilized pruners, first cut off any dead or diseased branches. Next, prune the tree to its size and shape, opening up the center of the tree’s top to allow more sunlight.

Grab the mulch
Many beneficial insects and pollinators, including the cellophane bee seen here, overwinter in dead leaves that have fallen to the ground or buried in topsoil an inch deep. Covering beds or the base of trees with a thick layer of mulch too early in the spring can make it difficult for wintering insects to emerge.
Wait to mulch in the spring when the soil has warmed. This is also why we leave leaf litter on the ground rather than raking it and don’t trample the soil.

Clear out some flower beds for spring planting.

Despite the warning above, you may not want to put all your spring gardening on hold. Identify high-impact areas, like the front bed you want to plant flowers in or the edible garden you want to start, and start there. Remove dead growth from last year’s annuals and perennials and use a garden fork to loosen and aerate the soil. If the soil is not very wet, you can turn it over with a shovel to improve the soil and break up any clumps. Watch carefully for new bulbs and make sure there is no soil forming near them.

Once all danger of frost has passed, you can plant seedlings of summer flowers and edible plants such as tomatoes, pumpkins, cucumbers, peppers, eggplants, melons, herbs and lettuce.

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