The lone voice of horticultural reason

Early Spring Duties

So the great El Nino winter has become the great El Nino spring, and I say, let’s go for it. In response to those who have asked if it’s OK to remove winter mulch from atop our garden beds, I assure you I haven’t been able to find a single notation in any of my gardening books where it’s recommended we blanch our emerging perennials. Poking around under my marsh hay in mid-March I found most of my perennials up and at’em. A week later my sedums, phloxes and campanulas were upwards to two inches tall and turning white from straining for sunlight under their winter cover.

I gambled, and removed most of the hay from the garden during a drizzly March 29 afternoon, which is positively scandalous. An hour later, fierce hail was doing a terrific job of aerating my bog-like lawn, and I had the curious opportunity when it finished to observe all the tender leaves and shoots of each perennial packed neatly in crushed ice, like exotic lettuces on display in the vegetable cooler of one of those fancy grocery stores. The sedum “Autumn Joy,” in particular, looked like gourmet baby brussel sprouts, poking up through their bed of ice as if boxed and ready for shipping by rail.

No harm done, of course. But thank heavens for the marsh hay. This winter was the classic killer all those serious gardening types warn you about: freeze, thaw, freeze thaw. That’s what kills perennial flowers, and can knock off some perennial vegetables, too. Not everything in the garden is susceptible to this-you can’t kill hosta-but if you didn’t cover your beds last November and are starting to realize you’ve lost some plants over during the winter, you’re not alone.

Looking ahead at the extended weather forecast, I’m moving everything up two weeks. I brought my roses up from their burial mounds a week ago, well before the usual April 20 benchmark. If you’re planning a spring application of pre-emergent crabgrass killer on your lawn, I’d get it down at the end of the third week of April instead of early May. Believe me, everything’s moving right along. I have an astilbe that grew an inch in less than 30 hours at the top of this week. It’s nuts.

I am not however, completely oblivious to the fact that it is April, this is Minnesota, and the last frost can come as late as May 15. So hold off on the outdoor planting of any annuals until at least early May, when you can peak ahead in the forecast a week or so to see if another gamble is in order.

Vegetable gardeners are also in the select group who should bide a little more time. Soil temperature needs to reach 60 degrees, six inches deep, before seeding any of the cool-season crops such as carrots, lettuces and beans. It’s not there quite yet. Soil thermometers sold at the garden store are a handy item this time of year.

But if you’re looking for something to do, now is the perfect time to be fertilizing your shrubs and young trees. The landscaper who planted them one or ten years ago hasn’t been seen or heard from since, so it’s up to you. A short handful of granular tree and shrub fertilizer around the dripline of each specimen, then loosely hoed in and watered will be gratefully welcomed by the plant. Now is also the best time to divide most perennials, especially those great clumps of hostas and daylilies you’ve been meaning to get to.

If you are new to gardening, welcome. You have much to look forward to, but the main benefit might surprise you. Jim Sollisch, writing in the Chicago Tribune Magazine recently observed, “Most of the really happy people I know get their hands dirty all the time. They garden or cook or refinish furniture. They touch basic materials that are closer to life than are objects prefabbed, preprogrammed, preprocessed and predisposed to minimize tactile stimulation.” Well said, and happy to have you along.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener