Spring is “official” on Monday, March 20th this year. We all know though, that the Pacific Northwest often shares some spring like weather and early flowering plants during traditional winter months so it’s not unusual for us to be antsy to get into the garden. I’m certain many of us already have been at work clearing old growth on our perennials, trimming dead wood from shrubs and trees, maybe even turning soil. Do use caution this time of year in order to protect your soil, plants and the overwintering or early wildlife visitors to your garden, including beneficial insects and pollinators. Here are some considerations for getting into the garden this spring.
Wet soil needs to be left alone until it is not going to be damaged by turning it. When the soil is too saturated your activity in the soil can cause compaction that can take years to correct. All that hard work of growing cover crops and adding compost over the years will cause you to “lose ground” in soil health. Test your soil by grabbing a sample in your hand and try to form it into a ball. If it is crumbly and won’t hold shape you are good to go. If it forms a ball and stays intact wait a bit and try again another day. More from Purdue University.
If your soil is dry enough to turn, take time to evaluate if you need to add amendments. More compost is not always a good thing. Healthy soil for gardens, in particular vegetable and flower beds, only needs from 3 – 5% organic matter content. Too much organic matter can be detrimental to nutrient runoff, growth of plants, affect microbial populations and in general result in a poorly growing garden. Test your soil to assess if you need amendments at all and for any other nutrients you might be lacking. It helps to have information before taking the time and spending the money to accumulate products you might not need. More from Oregon State University.
Did you grow cover crops this year? If so follow the general soil advice above about soil moisture before disturbing your cover crop stand. Cover crops in the pea family will bloom soon and provide food for early insects. If you can wait that out do so. Turn them in as soon as the blooms fade to avoid seed production. If they get tall trim them down, turn in as much as you can and if there is abundant extra growth, save that to use as a mulch in your garden beds.
Cleaning Up Perennials
Hopefully you were patient in the fall and allowed some dead growth to remain on your perennials as they finished flowering or died back this winter. Many hollow stemmed plants or even grassy clusters host beneficial insects all winter long. This spring as you begin cleaning up and exposing the new growth on your perennials be careful to check for anyone living there. If you find bee nests in hollow stems please be sure to place cut stems in a protected place where it will not blow away or get attacked by predators. Or leave those standing and wait to trim that plant. Keep an eye out for bumble bee queens who may be nesting underground amidst your plants – avoid mulching until they are out and about establishing their new nests for the summer.
Also, keep an eye on weather predictions. Freezing night temperatures can damage new growing points on perennials that die back completely, like Hosta. They will be growing soon, some have started to emerge, but they are fragile and exposed if you clean all protective cover away. Digital Garden Tools.
Trimming Woody Plants
As we see leaves unfurling we have a tendency to want to work on our trees and shrubs, especially roses. Every plant has different pruning needs – be aware of the requirements for pruning to protect flowers and to avoid exposing freshly cut tissue and new growth to cold temperatures. New tissue is stimulated to grow when we prune and if the weather is erratic and you get cold snaps your new growth will be damaged and need to be trimmed back again.
Often we use biological cues to let us know when it is time to prune things. Generally, roses are good to go when Forsythia begins to bloom. Lilacs need pruning when the blooms have faded and rhododendrons the same – prune before they set new buds as the flowers need deadheading. Some plants should be pruned when dormant and some when in full growth. Clematis vines have varied needs depending on the type of Clematis it is.
Dead wood can be trimmed anytime but if you wait until a plant has leafed out you will see where the dead wood really is and avoid cutting into live wood that does not need trimming. In some cases, leaving dead wood can be beneficial to wildlife. Make choices between aesthetics, plant health and wildlife support when trimming your plants.
Planting Early Vegetable Crops
Follow the advice on if your soil can be worked and then plan or go ahead and plant veggies and fruits that can take cooler soil and air temps. The Maritime Northwest Garden Guide has invaluable calendar information and entries by month to see what can be planted directly in the soil, transplanted, or put under cloche cover to protect it. The Digital Garden Tools article on our website also has good resources to be able to check soil temperature and air temperature in your area. Peas, Swiss chard, onions, mustard greens, lettuce, collards, and other Brassicas, strawberry plants, pansies and violas are all great choices of plants to set out in early spring.
Enjoy the unfolding spring – it is coming. Call us with your questions – or email via the form on this web site. 206-633-0224