Start Spring Gardening on the Right Note

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Gardening & Landscape Tips:

Gardening is a lot like conducting a symphony. Both involve managing many minute details at the same time. Both produce beautiful harmony when done well. Both require starting off on the right note or else what follows can be grating on the nerves. As maestros of the home and garden, what gardeners do in the early spring landscape will have a big impact on the rest of the season. Here’s some tips to get your garden started on the right note.


One of the most important spring gardening tasks is to get any overgrown shrubs and evergreens back under control. Early spring is a good time to shape and reduce the size of many evergreens, such as arborvitae (Thuja spp.), yews (Taxus spp.), hollies (Ilex spp.), boxwoods (Buxus spp.), hemlocks (Tsugaspp.), Douglas firs (Pseudotsugamenziesii), junipers (Juniperus spp.) and falsecypress (Chamaecyparis spp.). That’s when these garden plants are about to kick into prime-growth mode — ideal for quickly hiding cut tips and filling in any bare spots exposed during pruning.

pruned juniper
Some evergreens, like these junipers, won’t resprout if you prune too far back into the old wood where it is bare.

A light to moderate annual pruning in spring is better than letting evergreens get too big and overgrown. Having to cut back hard into bare inner wood to reduce them to a manageable size is tough on the plants and they may be slow to recover. Yews, hollies, and boxwoods usually recover well however, even from that kind of whack-back. A good general rule of thumb is to prune back no farther than where the green growth is still attached. Spruce, pine, and true firs (Abies) are exceptions. Control these by trimming off most of the new growth after it’s finished expanding in late spring.

Flowering shrubs that bloom in June and later produce their flowers on growth made this year, andare best size-controlled in early spring. On the other hand, spring bloomers produce their flowers on wood made last season. Prune these after bloom time to encourage fresh young growth that will flower the following year. For example: Cut summer-blooming butterfly bush (Buddleia spp.) and rose-of-Sharon (Hibiscussyriacus) heading into the season before they leaf out. Hold off pruning spring-blooming forsythias, lilacs (Syringa spp.), rhododendrons and azaleas until after flowering time. Any crossing, broken, or badly damaged branchescan come off in early spring too — regardless of when the plant blooms.

A few woody plants are best treated as “cutback shrubs”, otherwise known as coppicing. This drastic cutting of the plants back nearly to the ground is done in early spring. Purple smokebush is a good subject and encourages new shoots with the most lush dark burgundy leaves. Similar treatment forred-twig (Cornus alba) and gold-twig dogwoods (C. stolonifera) produces the brightest stem colors the following winter.

When even pruning won’t salvage a plant that’s become a monstrosity, you’ve got two choices.

  1. Transplant the plant to roomier quarters in early spring. The younger the plant, the easier it is to move successfully.
  2. Bite the bullet and remove overgrown hulks now. That’s usually the answer to older plants that will be difficult to move and that are beyond corrective pruning. Sometimes the landscape will look better instantly with an overgrown attention-getter out of the way. If done in spring, you can replace the mess right away with something nicer and more size-appropriate.

Spring Clean-Up

The beginning of the season is the time to tidy up in anticipation for the year ahead. That timetable has come two to three weeks earlier than usual due to the unusually warm winter in much of the country.

  1. Cut down any browned perennial foliage that wasn’t removed in fall or winter.
  2. Check your garden photographs from last year and decide if any of your flowerbeds or borders were overcrowded last season.
  3. For really crowded beds, consider extending the space. Spring is a good time to prepare new planting areas. This makes sense at a time when you’re digging and dividing perennials and transplanting shrubs anyway.
  4. Dig and divide perennials before they start into new growth. Division of perennial clumps increases vigor and the number of plants that you have. Give extras away or swap with a friend.
  5. It’s also a good time to get plant supports in place early. The staking system for plants prone to flopping will be less noticeable when the plants can grow into the supports rather than being strapped to them in summer.
spring cleanup
Cut a fresh edge along all beds at the beginning of the spring gardening season to give a neat look to the landscape.

Other High-Impact Season-Starters

  1. Cut a fresh edge around all of your gardens to givea crisp look to the entire spring landscape. Edging is easier when the ground is soft from winter snow or rain. Be sure your tools are sharp.
  2. Go on a weed patrol and remove any weeds that sprouted over winter or that you didn’t get to last fall. They’ll come out readily in the soft spring soil. Be sure to dig perennial weeds or spot-spray the broad-leaf ones with a liquid weed-killer.
  3. Prevent weeds from germinating by applying Preen. Preen remains effective for up to 3 months with Preen Garden Weed Preventer and up to 4 months with Preen Southern Weed Preventer. For those practicing organic gardening, use Preen Vegetable Garden Weed Preventer with corn gluten. Organic Preen can be reapplied every four to six weeks.
  4. Get plants that YOU want in place. Once these fill the space, there’s less room left for weeds.

Spring is the ideal planting time. You’ll still need to do some occasional trimming, weed-pulling, and other “maestro” jobs to guarantee a show-stopping garden all season, but at least your first note won’t be a sour one.

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