When should you mulch? What about pruning? 5 things to do now for your spring garden

Picture of Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Yew Dell Botanical Gardens Executive Director

Drivers, start your engines! So goes the legendary call at the start of the Indianapolis 500. (OK, it used to be, “gentlemen start your engines” but since 2017, the more inclusive directive has been standard.)

Either way, it seems an appropriate call to action for gardeners this time of year. We’ve been all cooped up from COVID-19 and a long winter, and we’ve had the tease of a few warm and sunny days.

But wait. Indy 500? We haven’t even had the Kentucky Derby yet, let alone Thunder  Over Louisville, the Dainty Festival, and the Barnstable-Brown Derby Eve Gala. Maybe this is a good time to pump the brakes and talk about some of the best things to tackle in the garden in the middle of March.

This can be a tough time of year for gardeners. We all know that this time of year IGS (Impatient Gardener Syndrome) can run rampant. We want to dig in the soil — but we know it’s too wet. We want to rototill the veggie garden — but we know it’s too wet. We want to plant tomatoes — we know better but push it anyway.

But there is actually a lengthy list of tasks that are both season-appropriate and quite satisfying. And they can not only fill the time until temperatures warm up and soils drain a bit, but they can also make those April and May tasks that much easier and more productive.

So here are five mid-March tasks to get you, and your garden, off to a good start

Why you should plant peas in your garden in mid-March

There’s not much better than a freshly picked bowl of peas, right off the vine. Be it shelling peas, snow peas, or sugar snaps, the combination of that fresh, crispy flavor and the breaking of the winter fast is the vegetarian version of the season’s first chorus of spring peepers or the first sandhill cranes flying overhead.

And peas can be planted outside in the garden right now. Indeed, they love the growing conditions in March and April. If you’ve ever waited too long, you’re familiar with the disappointment of weeks of vine growth followed by heat-induced vine collapse. And if you can plant in a raised bed, all the better. Raised beds drain and warm up even earlier than even the best garden soil.

Why early-spring is the best time to prune your garden

While we’re all anxiously awaiting the emergence of spring blooms and leaves, the dormant season is still best for that pruning that you’ve been meaning to get to all winter. Before the leaves emerge you can see what makes up a tree’s or shrub’s branching architecture. You can prune a little, take a step back and have a good look, then snip a bit more. Way easier than doing it with all those pesky leaves in the way.

How to fight weed growth in your spring garden

Yup, it’s time. While we all hate to complain about winter, sometimes we forget the silver lining of the coolest of seasons — no (or at least fewer) weeds.

This is the season for those winter annual weeds that seem to germinate, bulk up, flower, and expel seeds in less time than it takes to play the last 10 seconds of a typical college basketball game.

And beyond those winter annual weeds that love this cool spring weather, keep in mind that the seeds of all our summer weedy favorites are getting ready to germinate as well.

Now I know I’ll get hate mail for this next bit but I’m OK with that. I’m a fan of pre-emergent herbicides — those magical granules that keep summer weed seeds from germinating. I don’t mind a few dandelions in the lawn. A bit of clover here and there is generally the only green in my lawn once we hit mid-summer. But in my neighborhood, I have tons of the dreaded amur honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii), a healthy population of the especially weedy tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) — each specimen of which must produce between two and six billion seeds per meter of living branch — and every one of them floats knowingly right into the middle of my garden beds.

This is the season to spread that pre-emerge. If you wait much after the forsythia bloom, it’s too late. But if you get it down in time, it can save you hours and hours of weed pulling for about 90 days. On the other hand, if you want to go the chem-free direction, you have my blessing and admiration.

What is the best way to mulch your garden?

Let’s sum this one up with one word … moderation! For organic mulches, you only need about an inch or so once it’s all settled down. If you already have 4-inches of mulch in your beds, a vigorous raking is all you need to do right now. In fact, in some places, it actually helps to remove some mulch if you’ve added too much over the last few seasons.

It’s also a good time to remove those silly mulch volcanoes around the base of trees if you have them. When it comes to mulch, a little goes a long way.

How you should divide perennials in your garden

While I generally prefer fall for dividing perennials, this is still a good time to make more plants. Most herbaceous perennials can be easily split with a spading fork or sharp spade, dropped back in the garden and you’ll barely know the difference. Once leaves start to emerge it’s usually best to hold off until fall.

So whether it’s “riders up” or “start your engines,” there’s plenty to do out there in the garden. Time to get to it!

This article was originally submitted to the Courier Journal on March 9, 2022.

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