End of March Garden Chores
We are about to enter one of the cruelest months here in southern New Hampshire - April.
With the snow now reduced to tiny gray splotches in the shadiest of areas, and spring bulbs breaking the surface of garden soil, our hearts soar with the prospect of Spring! Days lengthen and temps rise. We immediately think about hauling out the lawn furniture and firing up the gas grille. But long time New Englanders know that this is just a cruel hoax by Mother Nature. An April Fool's joke of sorts. We could see more snow. Or at least cold, dreary rain. And last frost is weeks away.
But, no matter, our gardens are waking up and there are chores to be done. So let's get to it.
Prep tools: if you managed to skip this last fall, now is a great time to clean, sharpen and inspect your gardening tools. Before you head out this weekend to prune, it's best if your pruners and loppers are sharpened and disinfected to prevent cross contamination and the spread of disease. Dull blades make dull cuts, increasing the risk of damage to limbs and branches, making the plant susceptible to disease.
Tread carefully: try to avoid stepping in the garden while tending to woody shrubs and last year's plant debris. Garden beds are likely saturated with recent snow melt, runoff and rain from the last 24 hours, leaving soil vulnerable to compression from too much stomping about. Compacting the soil compromises the soil structure, making it harder for roots to spread and gather up the water and nutrients needed to thrive. Strategically placed rocks and/or stepping stones will make navigating the beds without disruption much easier. Another option is to place a piece of wood down first to disperse your weight and minimize soil compaction.
Clean gently: even though our snow is only hours or a few short days removed, spring bulbs are already pushing up through the soil surface. In my garden, plant beds are covered with a healthy layer of leaf litter and pine needles in the fall. This blanket helps plants to survive the freeze/thaw cycles that can occur, but does require a bit more effort come spring time. So, before grabbing that stiff rake to clean debris from your beds, first be sure that you won't be damaging tender shoots. There are some beds in my property that I actually "clean" by hand picking the debris and weeds away.
Cut down grasses carefully: it's definitely time to start removing last year's dead blades from ornamental grasses. My tool of preference for this is my Japanese folding saw. You should be able to just cut down to about 4-6", but if you see new green growth already shooting up from the crown, you may want to only cut down to the tips of the new spears to minimize damage. If you accidentally saw the tops of the new blades, they will likely continue to look "shaggy" throughout the summer.
Be on the lookout for beneficial insect cases: if you see something that looks like a shriveled up mushroom attached to a branch, it could be a praying mantis egg case. Mantises are highly prized by organic gardeners for pest control. So, you could either leave it be, or gently move it to rest in a safe space in the garden. When the case hatches, the nymphs will be hungry and looking for prey in their native habitat.
Embrace a bit of mess: it's so tempting to vacuum clean our garden beds in spring. But it's actually more than OK to leave some of the shredded leaf litter behind. I gently work the most broken down debris into the top layer of soil to be available to plants as a natural fertilizer and mulch. Be careful not to disrupt the soil and roots too much, though. If you over work it, you'll just expose dormant weed seeds to sunlight, then you'll really have a chore pulling weeds!
Identify significant damage to ornamental trees: during the winter of 2014-2015 when we received over ten feet of snow, we almost lost one of our dwarf Japanese maple trees. As the snow melted, it weighed down the branches and caused significant damage. We were tempted to remove the entire specimen. Instead, we hired an arborist to literally bolt the pieces back together. The photos below show the before and after, proving the resiliency of plants and that even the most gruesome damage can be overcome:
The work we do over the next week or two will pay off in spades down the road. If you have questions about what to do now in the garden, give me a ring!