TS Eliot’s poem, The Wasteland opens with the following lines:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Now of course Eliot lived in England and wasn’t, to the best of my knowledge, much of a gardener despite his reference to lilacs. But here in the “temperate” Northeast, I’ve always felt that March was the cruelest month for gardeners anyway, tempting us out of our homes with occasional gentle breezes and then dumping snow (or worse, ice) on us the next day (or even the same night)
What’s a gardener to do? Well, there are a few things that it’s perfectly safe to do this time of year. And there are some things that could ruin–and yes, I absolutely mean ruin!–your gardening for the rest of the season , if not for several seasons to come.
In this post I’ll talk about the things that it’s safe to do out of doors on those lovely balmy false spring days (because although March first begins meteorological spring, many of us know that “actual”–or gardening” spring isn’t going to begin until much later).
For those of you fortunate enough to be living at latitudes warmer than mine, you can just tuck these ideas away until you need them next year in February (or even mid-January if you’re lucky enough to live that far South!)
One of the best things to do in the early spring is to prune deciduous trees and shrubs. A caution here–prune only things that flower in the summer or later if you don’t want to lose the current year’s bloom (save the pruning of lilacs, azaleas and rhododendrons until later in the season.) And only prune the blue or pink hydrangeas after bloom–most, unless they are newer varieties, flower on last year’s wood.
But this is a great time to prune later blooming shrubs, ‘Annabelle’ and panicle type hydrangeas, and to take dead wood and suckers off trees.
It’s much easier to add new mulch or to refresh your mulch if the plants haven’t leafed out. Also, the sooner you complete this task, the more weeds seeds you smother. An ideal mulch depth is 2-3″. Remember to keep mulch away from the root flare of trees. No “mulch volcanoes” going up the trunks of trees, please.
Cut back any ornamental grasses that were left standing wintered over. This task is easier before they resume growth. Larger clumps can be tied up and cut off with a hedge trimmer about 4-6″ from the ground.
Remember to stay off soggy ground, whether it’s the lawn or your perennial and shrub beds. Walking on soggy soil–or working in it–can compact the soil. To test if it’s safe to work in the garden, squeeze a handful of soil in your fist. If it sticks together like a snowball, the soil is too wet to work in or walk on safely. Once the soil crumbles in your hand, you’re good to go.
On Monday I’ll talk about cutting back perennials, making new garden beds and selecting plants for those beds.