Spring’s Garden Maintenance Is Part Work, Part Pleasure
The following is a regular column that addresses basic issues facing the ever-inquisitive back- and front-yard toiler, proffered by someone who knows best: one of the master gardeners from the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Brian Cruey.
This past weekend was the first I had at home where I had no snow, no guests and no excuses to avoid the chores that have been waiting for me outside. It was so beautiful out, I didn’t mind one bit getting outdoors and seeing what the retreating glacier known as winter 2015 had left me. Those discoveries included one missing shovel, a lawn crisscrossed with vole tunnels and more fallen tree limbs than I could count. My hands are blistered and random muscles I forgot about are sore from all of the raking, chain sawing, pruning and hauling I got done. By eight o’clock Sunday night both my dogs and I were passed out on the couch exhausted from a day of being outside and spending some time in the sun. It felt great.
This is the time of year for maintenance. It’s easy to want to jump right into planting, but your garden beds are somewhat fragile at the moment and need to be approached with caution. Bulbs and perennials are just starting to poke up through the soil, which is loose, wet and easy to compact. It’s hard to know what’s coming up where, and stepping in the wrong place could lead to unnecessary plant damage. We’re also not out of the woods just yet (this time last year we got eight inches of snow) so don’t be fooled into thinking you can start planting annuals, vegetables and herbs by a random 70-degree, sunny day. It’s best to wait until mid May (at the earliest) to confidently put out plants without fear of frost.
Instead, use this time to sharpen your pruners, change your lawnmower blades, check the oil and filters in all of your equipment and replace tools that are broken or missing. Take an inventory of your fertilizers and seeds, and plan what you are going to grow this year. Use one of the inevitably rainy days of April to take a trip to the hardware store or garden center to stock up on supplies so that you can hit the ground running.
Of course, there’s much to be done in the garden itself. I never cut back things like sedum, grasses, black-eyed Susans or astilbe in the fall because I like the interesting texture it adds to the landscape through the winter, so that tops my to-do list in the spring. I also take this time to prune back plants like hydrangea, nine bark and my fruit trees. Again, if you are working in a garden bed, be careful where you step!
The minute I am able, I start taking my late afternoon, cocktail hour walk around the garden. This time of year there is still plenty to see. Yes, it is subtle, but it’s arguably more exciting because the changes are so gratifying. Hellebores are starting to come up and bloom, as are daffodils, tulips and all of the minor bulbs like chionodoxa and gallanthus. Trees like Cornus mas are just starting to pop and, even if they aren’t blooming just yet, the flower and leaf buds on almost every other tree are starting to swell with promise.
While you’re walking the garden looking for signs of life, also keep an eye out for signs of damage. As I mentioned, I had a crazy amount of downed branches this year that not only affected the trees that they fell from, but the plants that they landed on. The quicker you can alleviate the stress on any plant the better, so be mindful to look for things that are amiss. While you’re at it, check your house and outbuildings for any structural damage that may have occurred throughout the winter, like missing shingles, wood rot or gutter damage. This time of year I always notice something I missed the first, second and third time around, so better make that cocktail a double.
Whatever you do – don’t get stressed out! Spring can be overwhelming at times when you think about all of the work that needs to get done, but don’t worry – like all things in the garden, it’s about patience. This comes from someone who notoriously bites off more than he can chew and always has projects that he didn’t finish or even start. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that if you don’t get it done this year, next year will be here before you know it.
Visit the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Annual Plant Sale, where thousands of plants have been selected for their quality and arranged according to their growth habitat. The Garden’s horticultural staff is on hand to ask answer any questions you may have.