Wake up call: The garden awakens the gardener, ready or not

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After a prolonged wet winter, there will be mud. In the long run, this is a good thing, as steady moisture nurtures roots and flower buds for what should be a spectacular show this spring. Many tasks await as gardeners make their first stirrings, but beware trudging about in the muck too soon. Digging or tilling wet soil destroys structure, wringing out oxygen and nutrients, rendering good tilth into muck. Postpone bed prep for new plantings until the earth crumbles in your hand instead of squishing through your fingers.

If you’re looking to direct sow early greens and peas, pay attention to soil temperature as well as moisture. An inexpensive thermometer will tell when it’s warmed to 42 degrees or so. Any colder and peas, especially when it’s wet, are likely to rot. On the other hand, warm season melons and squash need temps in the upper 60s to germinate. Consult johnnyseeds.com for details. You can heat soil with black plastic, raised beds, or hot compost frames. Have a bale of straw on hand for mulch and muddy spots.

Trimming and cleaning the final debris of winter is one of the pleasures of the season, but pruning can be tricky this time of year. Our desire for neatness and order in the landscape can decapitate early spring-flowering shrubs. Azaleas, lilacs, and viburnums carry flower buds over winter on old wood. Forsythia and spireas likewise are poised to burst into bloom and should be tidied only after they have opened all the flowers they have saved for so long.

Old-fashioned blue or pink mop-head hydrangeas bloom on old wood, too, and pruning is best left to summer when they’re in full flower. This gives time for flower buds to set for the following year. Lavender is often another casualty of premature spring clean-up. Restrain yourself until new green growth tufts out in April and May. Only then trim away dead wood carefully, avoiding cuts into new wood. Lavender, like clematis, “does not like the hand of man.”

Turn your scissors-hand proclivities instead to evergreens like hollies and late-summer bloomers that appreciate a hard cut-back now. March is prime time for producing new flower shoots on roses, butterfly bushes, panicle hydrangeas (the white snowball types), and Russian sage.

Some people cut back crape myrtles this time of year, under the mistaken belief that it’s necessary to produce a good summer bloom. Since the varied Lagerstroemia tribe runs the gamut from stately 20′ Natchez to shrubby 3′ Razzle Dazzle, it’s even more confusing. If you’ve inherited a pollarded crape myrtle, keep it cut to the same point every year and treat it as a specimen (drape the stubs with lights in winter); you’ll never recover the original structure. In general, it’s better to let these lovely woody trees and shrubs (the “lilac of the South”) attain their natural habits and keep their jingle-bell seed heads for winter interest.

If existing mulch is 2″ deep or more, rake out what you have, turning it over and pulling it away from trunks and crowns of plants. Fluff it up. Left to itself and piled up year after year, heavy mulch becomes compacted, shedding water and smothering soil. Excessive woody mulch attracts voles and other varmints.

Take a tour during Virginia Garden Week (vagardenweek.org), Saturday, April 4 through Tuesday, April 29, and see how it’s done at the fine old places. From venerable Morven to Esmont, the University’s Pavilion Gardens and Carr’s Hill, springtime in Virginia is a lesson to us all.


Spring checklist

Wait for soil to dry out before digging.

Have a bale of straw on hand.

Cut back butterfly bushes, roses, and white panicle hydrangeas.

Do not prune azaleas, forsythia, blue/pink mop-head hydrangeas, lilacs, or lavender.

Keep mulch to 3″ maximum; turn it over.

Overseed and straw bare spots in the lawn with a mix of tall fescues.

Sharpen mower blades and set them to 2-3″; mow grass high in spring and fall, lower in summer.

Clean and sharpen hand tools; replace hand pruner and saw blades.

Find a way to recycle garden waste.

Visit new gardens.