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.


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.