Chores to help you warm up to spring
If the pending spring has you itching to get out into the garden, here are a few early-season chores that are best done before the warm temperatures arrive.
• Cut back and divide ornamental grasses: Use a pair of pruners, a long-bladed lopper, a string trimmer, or even a chainsaw to cut down clumps of ornamental grasses to about 8 to 10 inches in height. If, after cutting the old growth down, you notice the center of the plant has died out, it is time to divide the clump. Use a pick ax or a shovel to dig up the entire plant and separate it into two or more sections, discarding the sparse center. I often use a folding pruning saw to separate the sections, because larger grasses can be woody and difficult to cut through with a shovel.
• Cut back butterfly bushes, caryopteris, Russian sage and other woody perennials: With a clean, sharp pair of pruners or a small saw, cut all the branches of these plants down to 12 to 18 inches. It may seem cruel to remove so much of last year's growth, but without a heavy annual pruning, these plants grow gangly and flop over. The new stems will grow quickly, and the plant will be full-sized again before you know it. Lavender plants should also be pruned every spring by removing a few inches of last year's growth. Doing so keeps the plant from growing too woody and helps it maintain a dense, compact shape.
• Prune fruit trees: If you missed this chore in February, don't put it off any longer. Peaches and other stone fruit will be flowering soon, and pruning should take place while the plant is still dormant. Do not use a sealing product on the cuts, as this can trap pathogens and make the tree more susceptible to disease and rot. Remove any dead, injured or crossed branches first, then prune accordingly. If you aren't sure how to get started, invest in a good pruning how-to book. “The Pruning Book” by Lee Reich is a terrific reference for both experienced and newbie gardeners. There are many other books on the market that will do the same, but Reich's is my favorite.
• Sow seeds of early, cool-season crops: Though the soil is still too wet to till, if you practice no-till gardening or if you tilled last fall, now is the perfect time to get your early vegetable crops started. By early April, my garden is filled with rows of lettuce, radish, spinach, peas, chard, and tat soi seeds, just waiting to sprout in the warm sunshine of spring. Onion sets or transplants can also begin to make their way into the garden now.
• Cut down and clear out perennial beds: Over the coming weeks, plan to cut back the foliage of last year's perennials and rake out any debris to make room for new growth. I recommend saving this chore until spring, rather than doing it in the fall, because many pest-eating beneficial insects and native pollinators use the dead stems and foliage of perennials as overwintering sites.
Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Grow Organic” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is www.jessicawalliser.com.
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