Warm weather and lengthening April days beckon us back to the garden. We soak in the beauty of flowering trees and shrubs—red buds, dogwoods, cherry, azaleas, and viburnums. We monitor the progress of daffodils, iris, ferns, hostas, roses, and other perennials as they sprout new leaves and unfurl their flowers. This is the time of year to enjoy our gardens and admire Mother Nature’s handiwork. But there are always garden chores!
Already completed chores
Hopefully you’ve tackled the hard work of perennial bed clean-up, and tree and shrub pruning. You’ve already fertilized your fescue lawn. Fertilizing fescue grass at this time may invite summer fungal disease. And you never want to prune spring flowering shrubs until after their colorful show is complete. (See the blog Pruning Spring Blooming Shrubs.)
Now is a good time to manage weeds before they get out of control. Keep an eye out for dandelions, henbit, and other undesirables as you enjoy the spring garden. I always carry a bucket and weed-digging tool when I stroll through the garden. When I see a weed, I take care of it right away. Another option is to spot spray a selective herbicide, such as 2,4-D.
Tree seedlings and suckers
With the acorn crop we had this past year, I expect hundreds, if not thousands, of oak seedlings to pop up in my garden this spring. They’ll be accompanied by plenty of maple (Acer spp.) and yellow poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) seedlings. I know of no way to remove these tree seedlings other than hand-pulling. It’s a necessary garden maintenance chore, unless you’re trying to convert your garden to a forest. Occasionally, I will bypass a strong, well-placed seedling with the hope that it will one day be a lovely shade tree.
Maple trees are prone to sending up suckers from the base. Trees that you’ve pruned over the winter may also sprout shoots at the collar wound. Use hand pruners to clip off these suckers and shoots.
Conifers will often develop brown needles toward the interior of the shrub. If you consider these unsightly, spring is a good time to reach inside the bush and gently shake or dislodge the brown needles. Not only will this improve the appearance of the shrub, it will let in air and light that promote the overall health of the plant. As a general rule, do not prune conifers other than to remove dead or diseased wood. Conifer branches pruned back into hard wood will not put out new growth. Spring pruning of pines, on the other hand, is appropriate if you want to maintain size and increase overall thickness of a pine shrub. Clip the candles by one-third as they begin to open.
Spring is the season when everybody wants a fresh layer of mulch. No more falling leaves to cover up the mulch. And fresh mulch makes new plant growth just pop! Mulch is good. It retains soil moisture, keeps plant roots cool in summer, adds nutrients to soil as it decays, and retards weeds. Ground hardwood or pine fines are the preferred mulches in our area. Mulch should be about 3 inches thick, so only add enough to replace what has been lost. And do not pile mulch directly against the trunks of trees and shrubs. Leave an open channel next to the trunk where the roots flare out.
I never seem to get my flower stakes in the ground early enough. By mid-summer, my perennials are flopping across the sidewalk or dangling down the hillside. This year I’ve promised myself to place flower stakes early enough to tease perennial stalks to grow within their staked boundaries.
Transplants—don’t rush the season
Mother’s Day, or mid-May, is considered the safe time to plant annuals and warm-season vegetables in our area. Otherwise, these tender plants are likely to be killed in a late spring freeze or cold snap. However, spring is a good time to start your transplants indoors and to prepare the vegetable garden. Incorporate lime and fertilizers according to soil test recommendations. Set out cool season crops such as spinach, lettuce, and broccoli, but be sure the seedlings are properly hardened off first. You may need to use fabric row covers if the weather turns cold. (See the blog Seed Starting: From Sowing Indoors to Transplanting in the Garden.)
Article written by Beth Leonard, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.