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When can I start pruning? Here are 4 things to do to ready your garden for spring

Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Yew Dell Botanical Gardens Executive Director

There always seems to be some kind of weird, cosmological link between the gardening gene and the impatience gene. While we all know full well that we are engaging in what is sometimes referred to as the slowest of the performing arts, as gardeners we’re rarely content to let Mother Nature dictate the pace in the garden. Just as soon as we toss the Christmas tree to the curb and roll up the lights, we’re
ready to get to work in the garden . . . warm weather or not.

Of course a stretch of “winter” as we’ve experienced the last few weeks makes the impatience thing all that much worse. I’m sure there are already people looking for tomato transplants, carting out the umbrella for the table on the back deck and looking for impatience for the front planters . . . Lest we forget that Derby is still, literally, months away – a full 67 days before we hit our traditional frost-free date of May 10! Clearly we need something to keep us occupied in the garden between now and then . . .

So here’s a list of a few things that can feed your impatient gardener gene and set up your garden for a great 2023.

Pruning

As we’ve discussed in a few recent columns, it’s best to err on the side of patience when looking to cut back any woody plants potentially damaged by the Christmas polar blast. Give them some time to decide what’s live and what’s dead. But there’s plenty of other pruning to be done this time of year.

Winter is the perfect time to address pruning needs on your deciduous woody plants. The lack of leaves allows you to see where there might be crossing branches to be removed, potential problems to be headed off or thinning out of a crown to be done. When stems are bare it’s easier to spot insect problems (scale, borers, etc.) and any potential stem disease issues. Now that we’re in March and, for the most part, past the danger of sub-zero temperatures, you can go out and tackle those hedges that need shearing as well.

Herbaceous Perennial Cut Backs

This is always a tough one and I struggle with it in my own garden every year. Ecologically speaking, we know that it’s best to leave most of the perennial tops and accumulated leaves in place through the winter. The old stems provide overwintering cover for a whole host of beneficial insects and other critters. They provide seeds for birds through the lean months of winter. And at this time of year, most of those creepy, crawly things are still hanging out in there, waiting for warmer weather.

But by this time of year all that old, dead growth can make your garden look a bit like an abandoned drive-in movie theatre lot – not a good look as your hellebores and daffodils come into bloom. I also know that if I don’t get it all cut back now, it may not happen until Flag Day!

The compromise I try to strike, and a practice we’ve employed at Yew Dell Botanical Gardens, is to cut that material now but pile it loosely somewhere in the back 40. That allows us to take advantage of a 70-degree February day, get the garden cut back and cleaned up before the spring breaks loose, but still allow the overwintering insects to finish out their season in their chosen abodes. I can gather it up and get rid of the pile later in summer.

Mulching

I hesitate a bit to include this topic because those readers who just scan bold headings might take this as a license to dump gargantuan piles of mulch on already over-mulched garden beds. But regardless, this is a good time to assess your mulch situation and add if needed. Remember, organic mulches are great for the garden. They help to retain summer moisture, improve soil fertility and, over time, soil structure too. But too much of a good thing is . . . well . . . too much of a good thing.

The goal of a good mulch layer is to maintain no more than a 1-2”-deep layer of organic mulch. Any more than that and you run the risk of significantly reducing all important oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange between the pore space in the soil and the air above ground. Essentially, too thick a layer of mulch can have the same impact as planting too deeply. Not a good thing.

Bottom line, if you clean up your beds this week and find you have an inch or two of existing mulch, there’s no need to add any.

Digging and Dividing

If we’re honest, this is what we really want to be doing out there in the garden. Lifting and dividing a few perennials is an amazingly therapeutic gardening activity – and it has the added benefit of yielding free plants. Who doesn’t love that?! But this is a time of year to be careful working the soil. If the ground is too wet, and that’s the case most of the time in the middle of a Kentucky winter, you can do more harm than good. Working soil when it is too wet destroys the macro structure of the matrix and can lead to poor drainage and reduced aeration.

The classic way to determine if a soil is too wet to work is to slide a garden spade into the soil and look to see if it has created a shiny, glazed soil surface. If so, it’s too wet and it’s best to wait a few days. The better drained and the more organic matter in your soil the more likely you’ll be able to work it sooner in the season.

Other than all the above, the best thing to do is sit back and enjoy the show and know that we’re still in for a few surprises!

This article was originally submitted to the Courier Journal on February 28, 2023.

About the Author

Blurb about Paul here.

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