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Five Spring Garden Tasks You Can Do Right Now

Are you itching to get out in the garden? Here are a few things you can do in your early spring garden that will pay off this summer.

Add Seasonal Color with Frost Tolerant Annual Flowers

Laguna Sky Blue Lobelia
Even though there is still a nip in the air, there are flowers that you can plant now that will bloom from spring through fall. Fill containers and pockets in flower borders with frost-tolerant varieties such as Dark Knight™ Lobularia, Laguna™ Sky Blue Lobelia, Snow Princess® Lobularia. Because these plants are also heat-tolerant, you don’t have to worry about replacing them in summer like you do with traditional spring flowers such as pansies.

Prune Flowering Shrubs that Flower on New Wood

Shrubs to prune in early spring include those that bloom on new wood (the current season’s growth) such as Hydrangea paniculata, Hydrangea arborescens, Buddleia and landscape roses. Remove dead and diseased stems, crisscrossing branches and, if needed, reduce the height by about 1/3. Wait to prune forsythia, azaleas, lilacs, quince. These shrubs bloom on old wood, which means they set flower buds during the growing season for blooms next year. One exception worth noting is Hydrangea macrophylla. Though it flowers on old wood, it blooms late in the season, which doesn’t allow sufficient time for flower buds to develop before cold weather sets in. These hydrangeas are best left unpruned except for removing any dead or damaged wood in early spring, just as the new growth begins to appear.

Want to learn more about growing and pruning hydrangeas? Read “Hydrangeas Demystified” on ProvenWinners.com.

Cut Back and Clean Up Fall Leftovers

If you left ornamental grass and perennial foliage standing over winter, cut back them back now before new growth emerges. To prevent diseases and pests from carrying over, trash any unhealthy clippings rather than compost them.

Feed Your Soil

Good soil is essential for a beautiful garden and soil needs nourishment. Every spring and fall I add compost and well-rotted manure to flower beds to increase friability and beneficial organisms. Slow release fertilizer will get your plants off to a solid start and complement liquid fertilizer applications during the growing season.

Take Stock and Stock Up

Inventory your potting shed. Do you have plenty of potting soil, fertilizer and organic pest controls? Buy these items now so you’ll have them ready once the growing season starts. Replenishing your supply now is also easier on your budget because it spreads the spending out instead of purchasing plants and essentials at the same time.

Early spring is also a good time to clean containers and decide if you need new ones.

Not only will these spring garden tasks help cure your spring fever, but you’ll also be prepared to hit the ground running when the growing season starts in earnest.

Early Spring Gardening Activities

I know that spring has finally arrived when my first conscious thought in the morning concerns the list of things that I want to do in the garden. I can’t bear the thought of missing a single moment as my plants emerge from their winter slumber. Over the next few months I will be a madman wielding shears, loppers, pruners and a shovel. I take solace in the fact that I am sure I’m not the only gardener afflicted with this condition. Consider it this way, if our gardens are our kingdoms then Emily Dickinson got it right when she wrote – A little madness in the spring, is wholesome even for the King!

Here are a few things that are on my to-do list.

Inventory the Garden Shed

On rainy or cold days I head out to the garden shed to make sure I have everything I need to work in the garden. I’m not much of a planner, but I’ve learned that I can really save time and frustration by taking stock of my tools and equipment. Is the lawn mower ready to roll? Do I have plenty of twine and stakes? What do I need to re-stock? From there I head out to the garden center so I’ll be all set to work in the garden on the first sunny day.

Clean the Garden

Now is the time to clear out winter’s debris and give the garden a boost before spring gets into full swing. My first order of business is a little pruning to remove broken, damaged and dead limbs from shrubs and trees. I also like to shape up broadleaf evergreens such as hollies and boxwoods before new growth comes out. There are a few shrubs that I don’t want to cut on such as roses that only bloom once and spring flowering shrubs like azaleas. I’ll wait to trim these until after they flower.

P. Allen Smith shearing a holly hedge.

I need to cut back perennial and ornamental grass foliage left up over winter for the birds. A handy trick for cutting back grasses is to wrap the blades together with masking tape just above the cutting height then cut with hedge shears. This makes for easy disposal and eliminates raking.

Plant clippings and leaves will go into the compost pile and I put diseased plant material or branches in the trash.

Once the remnants of last year’s garden are cleared away it’s time to start working on the soil. I start by top dressing the beds with compost and apply organic fertilizer. I like to give my roses an extra boost with alfalfa pellets (rabbit food) that I buy at the farmer’s co-op. About a cup of pellets worked into the soil around the rose will provide nutrients to get the bush growing strong.

My last task in the garden is applying a 3-inch layer of mulch in the beds; then it’s on to the lawn.

Leave the Lawn Be

It may seem surprising, but spring isn’t’ the best time to feed your lawn. The nitrogen in lawn fertilizers will encourage top growth at the expense of root development. Deep roots make the plants less susceptible to summer heat, drought, diseases and pests. If I feel like the lawn could use an extra boost I wait until the soil temperature warms up, say mid-May, and use a slow release, organic product that feeds the soil instead of the grass. All I really do in early spring is mow and apply an organic pre-emergent. Since I don’t have to do much to prepare the lawn I have more time to sow seeds!

Start Seeds

Every January I go bananas buying seeds so one of my biggest spring tasks is sowing the varieties that need to be started indoors. While I like the orderliness of seed trays I’ve learned that I can use any shallow, plastic pot with drainage holes. I use plastic because this material retains moisture better than terra cotta. The key is to sterilize the containers by soaking them in a mix of 10% bleach and 90% water for 20 minutes.

For a greater rate of success I use a soil-less seed starting mix and keep the seeds warm (65 – 75 degrees) by placing them on a seed heating pad or in a temperate location.

Forsythia

To help maintain consistent soil moisture I like to spritz the surface with water from a spray bottle and cover the pots with plastic wrap. Once seeds germinate, I’ll remove the plastic and place the seedlings where they have good air circulation to prevent fungal infection.

Every day I’ll turn the seedlings to keep stems strong. Once the leaves develop, a weekly application of a half-strength liquid fertilizer will get the plants ready for the garden. Then all I have to do is wait for the last frost date to move them outdoors.

Protect Against a Late Freeze

In Arkansas we always have a blackberry winter, which is a spell of unseasonably cold weather. I keep frost blankets on hand to cover tender annuals, vegetables and early bloomers. You can also use plastic, sheets, buckets or even newspapers. I’ll remove the protection early the next day before the sun gets high because it will get hot under there.

Plastic and hog wire wold frame in the spring vegetable garden.

If the tulips and other spring-flowering bulbs have already started blooming I cut big bouquets to enjoy indoors because a freeze may burn the flowers. However, if the blooms aren’t open I don’t need to do anything because bulbs are tough and can usually take what Mother Nature dishes out.

For emerging perennials, an extra layer of mulch mounded around the base will provide them with some protection.

What to Plant in Your Spring Vegetable Garden

During January spring seems like it will never arrive, but it is actually the best time to get ready for your cool season vegetable garden.

Cool season vegetables are those that can thrive during the shorter days and cooler temperatures of spring and fall, In fact, some vegetables such as kohlrabi and kale actually develop  better flavor when nipped by frost.  Lettuce, collards, snow peas, cabbage and broccoli are a few examples of cool season vegetables. Summer favorites like okra, squash and tomatoes require long, hot days to grow.

So you are looking out the window at 2 feet of snow wondering what you can possibly do now to start your garden  the first thing  to do is place your seed order. When your order arrives, it may still be too early to plant the seeds outdoors, but many cool season vegetables can be started from seed indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the frost free date in your area.  Some transplants can be put out a few weeks before the frost free date as well.

Now I foresee the comments from readers in the Deep South already, “This doesn’t apply to me!”  Well, you are right.  You are already mid-way through your cool season vegetable garden time frame, but there is still time to plant.  A great resource for you is www.FloridaGardener.com.

On the flip side, gardeners in the extreme north have such a short growing season that they will plant their cool and warm season vegetables practically side by side.

 

Last Frost Dates by Zone

Zone 3 1 May / 31 May
Zone 4 1 May / 30 May
Zone 5 30 Mar / 30 Apr
Zone 6 30 Mar / 30 Apr
Zone 7 30 Mar / 30 Apr
Zone 8 28 Feb / 30 Mar
Zone 9 30 Jan / 28 Feb
Zone 10 30 Jan or before
Zone 11 Free of Frost throughout the year.

Before you start sowing seeds and planting it’s important to know what the last frost date is in your area.  This will determine when your spring growing season begins.  There are several on-line sites where you can find this information using your zip code or by checking frost dates of near-by cities. These are average dates that may differ slightly year to year but they give you a basic window of time in which you can create a planting schedule.  Another good source of local, reliable advice is your area’s County Cooperative Extension Service or check with knowledgeable members of local gardening clubs.

I don’t want to mislead you, even though many of these vegetables are regarded as cold tolerant, they can all be wiped out by a sudden, severe drop in temperature. It’s important to be prepared with something to drape over the crops if an overnight cold snap is expected.  Simply cover your crops with newspaper, old sheets or frost blankets. Just remember to remove the covering the next morning.

So that brings us to just what types of vegetables should we plant.  Here is a list of common cool season vegetables with a few tips to help you produce a bountiful spring garden.

 

Arugula – Sow seeds in the garden as soon as soil can be worked in spring. They will germinate in about 7 days and are ready to harvest in 3 to 4 weeks. For a continuous harvest, sow seeds every 2 weeks until temperatures heat up.
Beets – Sow seeds in early spring as soon as the soil can be worked. Beets prefer a well-drained, sandy soil. Avoid high nitrogen fertilizers as this will encourage top growth at the expense of root development. As with all root crops good soil aeration is key to uniform, robust development. Consistent moisture is also important. Keep areas weed free to avoid competition for nutrients.
Broccoli – Broccoli seed can be sown directly in the garden 4 weeks before the last frost date in your area or set out transplants 2 weeks before the last frost date. The ideal day time temperature for broccoli is between 65 and 80 degrees. Feed the plants 3 weeks after transplanting into the garden. Use a low nitrogen fertilizer.
Cabbage – Start seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the last front date or plant transplants in the garden 2 weeks before that date. Direct sow in the garden immediately after the last frost date. Cabbage plants are heavy feeders that require fertile soil rich in organic matter and consistent moisture.
Carrots – Sow seeds in spring about 2 weeks before the last frost date. Carrots need deep, loose soil to form a robust root. Keep the bed weeded to avoid competition for nutrients from other plants. Too much nitrogen will result in forked roots. When the seedlings are about 2-inches tall, thin them so there is about 1 to 4-inches between them. Cover the shoulders with mulch or soil to keep them from turning green and bitter.
Collards – Collard transplants can be planted 4 to 6 weeks before the last frost date in your area. Plant in fertile, well drained soil with a pH of 6.5 to 6.8. Rich soil encourages rapid growth and tender leaves, which are the best tasting collards.
English Peas – Direct sow in the garden 4 to 6 weeks before the last frost date in your area. They will germinate in soil temperatures as low as 40 degrees F. Seedlings will survive a late snow and short periods of temperatures down to 25 degrees F.
Kale – You can plant kale in early spring, about 3 to 5 weeks before the last frost date. Cover with frost blankets during severe cold. Similar to collards very fertile soil is ideal to encourage rapid growth and tender leaves.
Kohlrabi – Kohlrabi is similar to a turnip, but is actually related to cabbage. Set plants out 4 weeks before the last frost date. Protect young plants from freezing temperatures with a frost blanket. Cool temperatures enhance the sweet flavor.
Lettuce – Sow lettuce any time in spring when the soil is workable. Lettuce is more sensitive to cold than other cool season vegetables and should definitely be covered during cold snaps. The ideal day time temperature is between 60 and 70 degrees. Fertilize with fish emulsion, which is high in nitrogen. Lettuce will grow in partial shade and actually appreciates the shelter from intense late spring sun.
Onions – Onions can be grown from sets, small bulbs, or transplants, which look like scallions and come in a bundle of 60 or so. Either method should be planted in early spring as soon as the soil is workable. Long-day varieties are suitable for Northern gardens and short-day varieties can be planted in the South. Place time release fertilizer in the planting hole so that it is close to the roots. Follow the fertilizer’s label directions.
Potatoes – Greening of grass is a good indicator of when to plant potato sets, dried potato pieces with 2 to 3 eyes. In my zone 7 garden that occurs in March. Soil should be loose, fertile and well drained. As the tubers mature, cover with soil to prevent burning.
Radish – Sow radish seeds in the garden about 4 weeks before the last frost date in your area. No feeding necessary, but soil should be fertile and well drained. They are quick to mature so check them regularly. They are ready to harvest as soon as they are of edible size.
Spinach – Spinach seeds can be sown over frozen ground to germinate as the soil thaws. Transplants can be set out 4 weeks before the last frost date in your area. Fertilize when the plants are about 4 inches tall. Spinach prefers very fertile soil to encourage rapid growth and tender leaves. Once the days get long and warm it will bolt, meaning that it grows tall, blooms and becomes bitter tasting. For grit-free leaves select plain leaf varieties such as Giant Nobel and Olympia.
Swiss Chard – Swiss Chard is one the more beautiful vegetables in the garden. Bright Lights and Ruby are favorites for adding color to the garden and the dinner table. Plant or sow seeds 2 weeks before the last frost date in your area. Thin to 6-inches apart when seedlings are 3-inches tall. Water regularly.
Turnip – Plant 2 weeks before the last frost date. Any well-drained soil will do. Consistent moisture is key for healthy root development. Although it is not necessary, the greens will be the most tender if you plant in a fertile soil.

Good to Know

Vegetables need 7 to 8 hours of full sun daily. Cool season vegetables get by on 6, some can even be planted in partial shade.

Framed Bed Soil Recipe: 50% existing garden soil, 25% aged manure, 25% compost or humus

Gardeners in tropical regions plant & grow cool season vegetables in fall and winter.