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Seven Gardening Tasks To Do Before Spring

Gardeners know that the growing season doesn’t begin on a warm morning in May—there is much to be done while frost still lingers in the ground. In the lengthening days of earliest spring, while the sap is still flowing, we should be up and about the potting shed, getting ready for the planting rush. Making tools ready, mixing up custom fertilizers and organizing irrigation equipment are practical matters we can accomplish before the buds break. Instead of trying to catch up, an early start puts us in confident control of the gardening season.

Prune summer-flowering shrubs
To avoid wasting potential blossoms, it’s important to have the first big surge of spring growth going into productive wood. These plants make their flowers on new wood:

Remove dead wood and shorten sections of living wood that are slimmer than a pencil (they won’t have enough strength to hold up the flowers).

Cut back canes and branches of Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ (sometimes called hills of snow) and H. paniculata ‘Grandiflora’ (a.k.a. PeeGee), ‘Unique’ and ‘Tardiva’ by about half their lengths.

Shorten stems of low-growing Spiraea japonica (‘Anthony Waterer’, ‘Bumalda’, ‘Goldflame’, ‘Gold Mound’ and ‘Little Princess’, for example) by two-thirds their lengths.

Rose of Sharon
If shortening is required, remove up to one-third its height before new growth begins.

Cut back last year’s growth before buds break. If you’re unsure of what pruning category your clematis is in, it’s safe to cut back by half the plant’s height.

Ensure soil fertility
  • Prepare a quick-start growth stimulant for perennial plants—try a mix of equal parts blood, bone and kelp meals—and scratch 125 millilitres into the soil around each plant’s root system.
  • Alfalfa weed or pellets (from an animal feed company or pet shop) will also supply growth hormones and can be used with the growth stimulant described above. Apply 125 grams to small perennials, 250 grams to large perennials and 500 to 750 grams to shrubs.
  • Purchase seed of Dutch white clover (Trifolium repens) at a garden centre and broadcast it in lawns—about 250 grams per 100 square metres. Clover fixes nitrogen in the soil, crowds out weeds and strengthens the lawn against drought. It won’t strangle grass plants, but it will fill in where grass is patchy.

Irrigation preparation
  • Purchase soaker hoses and position them in beds and around shrubs before perennial plants and groundcovers begin growing.
  • Patch punctured rubber hoses and replace all plastic washers with non-leaking rubber ones.
  • Avoid unnecessary water evaporation by setting in-ground irrigation systems to come on in the early morning, before sunrise.

Check up on plant supports
  • Put peony rings in place before growth begins.
  • Set up stakes and netting for garden peas before planting the seeds.
  • Tighten or replace wire supports for raspberry and grape canes before buds break.

Pest control essentials
  • Collect blackspot-affected leaves from around roses before spring rains reintroduce disease spores.
  • Collect leaves infected with apple scab from under crabapple trees to avoid a new outbreak.
  • Before leaf buds break, spray still-dormant roses, magnolias and woody shrubs (except yews, and Japanese and sugar maples) with dormant oil to smother scale insects. Apply spray in the morning when a very cold night is not expected.

Pre-summer lawn care
  • As soon as the earth is firm, use a leaf rake to remove light thatch and leaf debris from all lawn areas. For areas of deep thatch, use a special prong-type thatch rake. Put the removed organic material under shrubs and hedges as a mulch to conserve moisture and insulate the roots from summer heat.
  • Once soil is no longer waterlogged, aerate lawns with a core aerator machine that removes five-centimetre-long plugs of soil to improve oxygen access to the root zone.
  • Top-dress lawns before they begin growing with a mixture of aged manure, peat moss, shredded leaves (if available) or purchased triple mix in a 2.5-centimetre layer.

Tools and equipment basics
  • Take lawn mower blades to a professional sharpening service. Dull blades make ragged cuts and invite turfgrass diseases. Also sharpen snub-nosed spades and round shovels.
  • Check tires of wheelbarrows and repair wheel punctures, add air to flat tires and tighten nuts and bolts.
  • Clean the cutting blades of pruners with steel wool to remove dried sap.
  • Test the pond pump in a bucket of water to be sure it works properly after winter storage.
  • Brush out clinging soil from containers and terra-cotta pots, then soak them for 30 minutes in a solution of one part chlorine bleach to nine parts water to eliminate pathogens.