By Susan Moeller, AARP March 2023
These chores lay the groundwork for a great growing season. Come spring, gardeners are like horses at the gate, barely able to contain themselves at the thought of getting a jump on the season.
Not to overstate a simile, but hold your horses. Though you might have a long list of spring garden tasks, make sure you’re not too eager, especially for planting, warns Susan Mulvihill, a garden author, blogger and YouTuber based in Spokane, Washington.
“It’s important not to jump the gun and plant too early,” says Mulvihill, author of The Vegetable Garden Pest Handbook. “There are certain microorganisms in the soil that don’t become active until a certain temperature is reached in the soil. Years ago, I would plant my corn too early, and I’d say, ‘Why is it so yellow?’ And it was because microorganisms that make nitrogen available to the plant roots weren’t active yet.”
Don’t waste your money irrigating, fertilizing or putting out weed control before plants are growing and ready to take it in, says Katy Shook, an area horticultural agent for North Carolina State Extension in Chowan County. “We don’t want to put it out until plants can actively use it,” she says. “So no input unless it’s the right time and the plant’s going to be affected by it.”
So what should be on your spring to-do list? If you’re aching to get started, here’s a list of starter tasks from the experts:
1. Research and make a plan
Understand the limitations of your planting zone and perhaps invest in a soil thermometer (starting at about $15) so you know when it’s the right temperature to plant, Mulvihill says. Check your garden site for hours of sunlight and a practical water source. Make a plot plan of your vegetable garden so you’ll know where to rotate crops. “If the crops from the same plant family are in the same bed year after year after year, those plants are at higher risk of having repeat insect problems and disease problems,” she says. Start a garden journal to record what works. Search for the best plants for your zone and area. Kevin Philip Williams, assistant curator of the Denver Botanic Gardens, recommends groups such as Plant Select, a nonprofit partly supported by the Denver garden that researches plants best suited for the West. Another organization, Chicagoland Grows, concentrates on plants for the Upper Midwest.
2. Spring-clean your tools
No doubt you meant to do this last fall before you put your garden tools away, but it’s not too late. Wash shovels, hoes and other tools with a strong stream of water to remove caked-on dirt, then dry, advises the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach service. Wipe the metal surfaces with an oily rag or spray with a rust preventative such as WD-40. Next, sand the wooden handles and wipe them with linseed oil to prevent drying and cracking. That will also make them more comfortable to use. Take hoes, spades, shovels and pruners to be sharpened — it will make a difference in the amount of effort required to use them. Many hardware stores or tool shops will sharpen tools, and you can treat yourself to a fresh pair of gardening gloves. Don’t forget to sanitize your pruners in between plants to prevent the spread of disease. The easiest way is to dip them in ethanol or isopropyl alcohol, available at most drugstores. No prolonged soaking is needed, the extension service notes.
3. Tidy up
These days, flower gardeners are advised to leave the dead stalks of perennials until just before spring’s first growth. This creates a buffer for the plant and harbors beneficial insects such as praying mantises and some bee species, Williams says. Although spring is the time to cut dead parts back to make room for new growth, he says research shows that insects will return to the site where they emerged to lay their eggs. So he suggests leaving a few stalks standing or creating a wild area in the yard that remains uncut until summer. Or, he says, shred or rough-cut dead material and leave it in the garden as mulch.
4. Prune trees and shrubs
Before leaves emerge, take a good look at your shrubs and trees, Shook says. “You can look for broken branches, overlapping branches, dead or diseased branches and cut those out. You want to try and get that done before new growth comes out.” Not sure if a branch is alive? Just use your fingernail to scratch along the woody bark, she says. It will show up green if the plant’s still alive; if it’s brown, it’s a lost cause.
5. Do some weeding
Now is the time to get a jump on this never-ending chore. “It's important to get ahead of them now, because they compete with our vegetable plants for moisture and nutrients,” Mulvihill says. “They can also act as a host plant for insects and disease. So if anybody needs any additional motivation to weed, that ought to do it.”
6. Add compost and mulch
Once you’ve weeded, add 1 or 2 inches of compost and other organic amendments such as bonemeal to the beds. Here’s good news: Current advice says not to bother turning it into the soil or rototilling. “There’re all these different kinds of microorganisms that are basically stratified in the soil, they live in different decks. And if a gardener significantly disturbs those layers, it's going to impact something that’s called the soil food web,” Mulvihill says. “And so those microorganisms, they’re decomposing organic matter, they’re making nitrogen and other nutrients available to our plants, they improve the texture of our soil.” The next step is to put down a layer of mulch to keep down weeds.
After these steps, when the soil warms up, you’ll be ready to plant.