Ground control: Prepping your garden for its spring awakening

To help develop buds for next year, azaleas are best fertilized with a slow-release product. File photo. To help develop buds for next year, azaleas are best fertilized with a slow-release product. File photo.

Spring comes to us variously—covered in mud, blasted through on dry winds, smuggled beneath the skirts of late freezes. It has been known to rise gloriously from a burgeoning earth like the first day of Eden, which seems likely this year. Abundant moisture from rain and snow portend a spectacular flowering of classic favorites: dogwood, azalea, spirea, deutzia and early bulbs are on schedule to explode in a riot of white and pastels.

That kind of display takes a bit of planning (start your calendar now), but a good spring fluff-up and judicious planting from newly stocked garden centers will work wonders. Whether you have a pocket handkerchief courtyard, extensive shrubberies and an allée of trees along the drive or something in between, each spring has a common wake-up call.

Give established beds a thorough grooming, removing dead branches and handing out leaves from the center of shrubs and perennials. After raking, if you’ve still got 2-3″ of mulch, don’t add more until fall. Shrubs, perennials and ground covers benefit from pine bark, leaf mold or compost-based mulch.

Avoid leaf blowers that blast the ground, requiring new mulch every year. Well-tended grounds restrict blowers to hard surfaces. When used regularly as a way to clean planting beds, blowing compacts the soil and wastes valuable amendments. Avoid also the shame of volcano mounds of mulch around trees; rake it away from the trunk in a wide circle, preferably out to the drip line, to a depth of 2-3″ of shredded hardwood, least likely to wash and the best mulch for woody plants.

File photo.
File photo.

Fall is ideal for amending soil, so resist corporate advertising and go light on fertilizers other than compost and other slow-release organics. Spring is when high nitrogen chemical fertilizers wash into the bay to feed destructive algae blooms. Don’t contribute to this. Contact Piedmont Master Gardeners’ Healthy Virginia Lawns program at hvl.albemarle@vt.edu to find out how to grow a sustainable greensward.

Azaleas are best fertilized with an organic acidic slow-release product like Holly Tone after they bloom, to help develop buds for next year. Flowers for this spring have already formed and an application of fertilizer before blooming can lead to a spurt of excessive foliar growth that obscures the flowers. Pine needles are a good mulch for azaleas and rhododendrons.

Most of us know not to trim azaleas this time of year, but often mistakes are made with viburnums and blue hydrangeas, which also carry their flower buds through the winter. For all spring-flowering shrubs, the best rule is to prune immediately after flowering. Summer bloomers like butterfly bush and white hydrangeas are usually cut back one- to two-thirds in March. Cut ornamental grasses, including liriope (“monkey grass”), to the ground before they start making new growth (and before mulching).

Evergreen shrubs can be tricky. Hollies love a hard cut-back this time of year. Boxwood, on the other hand, like any Southern lady, prefers a softer hand, with individual “plucking” cuts opening up the interior to light and air. They resent the insulting assault of electric trimmers and will decline over time when treated this way. Although sometimes in the same bed, boxwood thrives in a neutral soil; hollies like it acidic. Don’t inadvertently lime the hollies when you’re amending the lawn and don’t put Holly Tone on the boxwoods.

File photo.
File photo.

Local garden centers are best for variety and, naturally, locally grown plants. Check out Eltzroth-Thompson, Southern States, Snow’s Garden Center, Ivy Nursery, Ivy Corner and Fifth Season Gardening to look for early bloomers (see sidebar). If you’ve been thinking about adding an ornamental tree like dogwood, redbud or cherry, now’s the time.

For those who actually like to touch the earth instead of mulch it, March heralds the magical time when the ground can be turned—not too wet, not frozen. Start that little vegetable patch or raised bed you’ve dreamed about and direct sow spinach, mesclun (mixed baby greens), carrots, radishes and Jefferson’s beloved pea sometime this month when the soil temperature hits 50 degrees. Websites such as johnnyseeds.com and southernexposure.com will tell you all you need to know.

Ushered in by the equinox on March 21, however spring beguiles us, well-planned gardens and grounds will be ready.

Early bulbs

Put these on the calendar for late-summer orders (try vanengelen.com and brentandbeckysbulbs.com).

 Crocus

 Muscari (above)

 Snowdrops (galanthus)

 Siberian squills (scilla)

 Tete-a-tete miniature daffodils

Spring color

Make sure cold-hardy plants like pansies and violas have been grown without heat and are hardened off for freezes. Wait for last date of frost (May 15) for tender annuals.

Evergreen shrubs can be tricky. Hollies love a hard cut-back this time of year. Boxwood, on the other hand, like any Southern lady, prefers a softer hand, with individual “plucking” cuts opening up the interior to light and air.

March calendar

  • Clean beds
  • Prune butterfly bush and white hydrangeas
  • Rake old mulch
  • Add early spring bedding plants for color
  • Topdress with compost or mulch as necessary

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