Early-spring tasks in the garden are the best

Story and Photo by Troy B. Marden

March is one of my favorite months in the garden. Crocus, winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), and the earliest daffodils (Narcissus spp.) brighten the chilly days and Lenten roses (Helleborus spp.) push forth their flowers, coaxed from cold soil by the warming rays of the spring sun. Lungwort (Pulmonaria spp.) blooms in shades of blue, purple, and pink, and the earliest wildflowers, including bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and some of the earliest trilliums (Trillium spp.) announce spring’s official arrival.

Early-flowering shrubs, including witch hazel (Hamamelis spp.), Forsythia, Camellia, and the earliest azaleas (Rhododendron spp.), add to the show. The fragrant blooms of Burkwood’s daphne (Daphne x burkwoodii) perfume the air.

Each day the garden changes, as bulbs continue to emerge and flower and perennials push through the soil in preparation for their later spring and summer shows. All of this activity, paired with warmer temperatures and sunny days, motivates me to get out and accomplish some early spring garden tasks.

One of my first tasks is to go through each garden bed and pull any weeds that have gotten a foothold over the winter months. Henbit, chickweed, and others are still small and easy to pull from moist soil. I top off the mulch as I go. Mulching early – before the majority of perennials and wildflowers begin to emerge – makes the task much easier than trying to mulch (and step) around a multitude of plants coming up by early April.

Chaenomeles ‘Chojuraku’ Japanese quince

Now is also the perfect time to top-dress with a layer of compost or well-rotted manure. Put this down under the mulch. In new garden beds or open areas not full of plants, I dig it in with a shovel. In beds that are densely planted, where I don’t want to risk cutting into clumps of perennials still below the soil’s surface, I simply top-dress and let the earthworms and other soil life do the tilling for me

As I’m weeding and mulching, I also finish up any pruning that still needs to be done. I have very few boxwood shrubs (Buxus spp.) in my garden, but I like to have them pruned no later than the first week of March. The same goes for all other non-flowering evergreens – juniper (Juniperus spp.), holly (Ilex spp.), laurel (Laurus spp.), yew (Taxus spp.), and others – whether it is shaping, thinning, or limbing up. Get it done early and check it off the list. Hybrid roses (hybrid teas, floribunda, grandiflora and the Knock Out clan) and summer-flowering shrubs such as panicle hydrangea (H. paniculata) flower on their new growth and can be pruned now. I make every effort to have this finished by the third week of March. This stimulates dormant buds along the stems and encourages robust, vigorous growth and profuse flowering as the season advances.

Remember that now is not the time to prune spring- and early-summer flowering shrubs. Most of these flower on last year’s growth and pruning now will affect any shrubs – azaleas (Rhododendron spp.), forsythia, camellia, mophead hydrangea (H. macrophylla), oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia), lilacs (Syringa spp.), etc. – that flower between late March and early June. You’ll prune these later, after they’ve finished blooming.

Finally, while I am spending so much time on my hands and knees weeding, mulching, and spreading compost, I like to put out my spring application of fertilizer. Then, as the plants begin to emerge and grow, additional nutrients are readily available to encourage lush growth and – for flowering plants – an abundance of blooms.

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