Spring is finally here! Which means it's time to dust off those old pruning shears and get to work in the garden. A little hard work now will greatly benefit your garden for the rest of the season, so here are a few tips and guidelines for jumpstarting the green back into your life.
1. Cut Back Perennials
A mild day in early spring is a great time to cut back foliage on herbaceous perennials that have developed brown foliage from the freezing winter months. Since this task is performed above ground, it may be done prior to the last predicted frost for the season when the ground may still be partially frozen.
As a general rule of thumb, most perennials appreciate being cut back either entirely or to just a few inches above the base. This will allow for new spring growth to emerge without competition from last season's dead foliage.
This is especially important for ornamental grasses that may have been left tall throughout winter, as it can be time-consuming to selectively cut back dried foliage from in-between the thin and delicate new growth. A word of caution: Be sure to check your go-to garden manual for pruning recommendations on woody plants like trees, shrubs, and vines, as these plants have seasonal pruning requirements that are not always straightforward.
For example, there are different species of hydrangeas that have opposite pruning habits; some varieties grow on new wood that can tolerate seasonal pruning while others grow on old wood that should be left unpruned.
2. Prune Winter Damage
Winter is a challenging season for most plants, and winter damage to our woody plants (trees and shrubs) such as browning on evergreens and branch desiccation may occur. Spring is the ideal time to rid of this damage to give the tree plenty of time in the upcoming season to develop new growth in the affected areas.
However: Be careful not to prune spring-flowering varieties such as Lilac and Forsythia at this time, as they've already set bud for the season. Pruning prior to flower could send the plant into shock, resulting in little or no blooms. As a general rule of thumb, it's best to hold off on pruning until after flowering yet prior to late Fall when new buds begin to set for the following year.
3. Fertilize & Amend to Reinvigorate Existing Soil
Adding a dose of balanced fertilizer will jump-start your garden and give back those lost nutrients that plants have used up to survive the long winter. Fertilizing is especially important for container gardens, as there is limited nutritional supply available in a soil that is containerized, often resulting in limited microbial activity or what is referred to as "dead soil."
For organic gardeners, amending your soil with mushroom compost or earthworm castings is a great way to boost nutritional content and will also help to gradually break down heavy clay soils. Lastly, top-dressing with a thin layer of mulch will help with water retention and weed control.
4. Jumpstart with Watering
While we're quite accustomed to rainy spring days, erratic weather patterns are the new normal: So, it's a good idea to resume your watering schedule after the last frost date. In cooler spring temps, watering once or twice a week should be sufficient, however begin to increase your watering as temperature rise or during prolonged periods of little rainfall.
Be particularly mindful of young perennials that you may have installed last season, as they will be most vulnerable to drought and will appreciate the additional water to help establish deep root systems and thus making them more resilient to the up and coming heat of summer.
5. Monitor the Forecast and Cover!
It's no longer unusual for Chicago to receive a sixty-degree winter day followed by a snowstorm! This weather pattern can be especially damaging to our spring-flowering bulbs and perennials that optimistically pop above ground a little earlier than we're used to seeing them. If you notice buds on any of these plants it's a good idea to cover the area with a clear plastic tarp when a frost is likely.
While spring plants are typically more cold hardy, a hard frost can sometimes kill off tender buds before they have a chance to fully bloom.
Amy is a Landscape Designer at Sprout Home's Chicago garden center.
How are you prepping your garden and yard for warmer days ahead? Tell us in the comments.