The answer: focus on the tasks that need to be done before the gardening season starts, which can and will keep us busy until the weather breaks. Don’t consider the following as a task list, but rather a way to pass the time and expend your gardening urges until spring has officially sprung.
The vegetable garden
First, start considering what vegetables your garden will have, possibly by perusing some veggie recipes. If these vegetables are new to you, do your research to make certain they will thrive. As a fun family project, create vegetable row labels with the kids. While it’s still too cold to venture out into the garden, take cuttings for propagation of houseplants and repot them if needed. It’s also a good time to start fertilizing all houseplants, getting them ready to go outside for the summer.
Now is the time to prune trees and shrubs that bloom in midsummer or later, such as Butterfly Bush (Buddleia) and Blue Mist Spirea. Remember: do not prune woody plants that bloom in the spring, such as forsythia, lilacs, and Korean Spice Vibernum; prune these after they have flowered. While still dormant, woody plants like trees and shrubs can be transplanted. Wait until the frost has melted before walking on the grass as you carry out these tasks; this damages plant cells, leaving behind permanent footprints.
Spring cleaning Do some early spring-cleaning and upkeep by removing all fallen branches and sticks from the lawn and pulling any visible weeds. Clean and repair garden furniture. Turn and mix the compost pile. Check flowerbeds for heaved out perennials. Gently push them back into the soil, carefully use your foot or hand, being cautious not to step on the perennial’s crown. Cut back ornamental grasses by tying them with rope or a bungee cord and cutting them with a bladed weed whip, hedge trimmers, or pruners; be sure to wear gloves. Leaf rake the yard and garden to get all of last fall’s lingering leaves. Don’t remove the winter mulch yet, though because it protects plants against changes in the weather and low temperatures.
You can also clean and organize the garage or tool shed. Do an inventory of tools and equipment, check and replace broken handles, clean gardening tools, sharpen spades, check watering cans for leaks, and wheels on wheelbarrows. Sort through your gardening containers to find cracked terracotta pots; these can be broken into shards and used for drainage in other pots.
When is the soil ready?
Just when you think Mother Nature has decided to warm things up, the temperature drops again. On those warm 60-degree days, don’t become overzealous and start digging in the dirt. Working the soil too early will ruin its structure for years. In the spring the earth is soaked due to the winter snow and the spring rains, making the soil easily compacted and creating large clumps of soil. Plant roots grow best when there are air spaces between soil particles. The easiest way to test to see if the soil is workable is to grab a handful of soil and squeeze it together. If the ball keeps it’s shape, the soil is too wet and you need to wait. If the soil ball easily breaks apart, it’s time to work in the garden soil.
Another sign that the garden is ready is the blooming of daffodils. At this time you can plant onions, swiss chard, beets and parsley. When the forsythia and dandelions burst forth with gold blooms, you can apply crabgrass control to the lawn. As far as other plantings go, hold off on plants that have been growing in a warm greenhouse, as the weather and temperature shock will most likely kill them.
Don’t despair, gardeners. Spring is close enough to cultivate expectations, and to begin the process of ensuring this growing season is the best yet for your garden.
Barbara Arnold is green corps coordinator at Franklin Park Conservatory.