The lone voice of horticultural reason

Spring Duties

Like the first day of a lengthy vacation, May for Minnesota gardeners is that blissful time when anticipation is half the fun, while not a moment is spent thinking down the road to the adventure’s inevitable end. Let’s keep it that way as we look at some of the first real gardening duties at hand.

For those of us who devote much of our attention to growing annual and perennial flowers, it’s important that by now the flowerbeds be perfectly clean and cleared of all vegetative signs from last year’s season. This is best done last fall, but I for one didn’t complete the task. Any portion of last year’s blooms, stems or leaves (or leaves from your neighbor’s trees) now slowly rotting atop the moist spring soil as it warms may harbor bacteria, fungi or eggs of pests that would all love an early start on tender new perennial growth.

Avoid tromping about too much in the beds, however, for it is only the start of May, and regardless how the surface soil looks, the ground is plenty wet. Rather than compact the soil with every step, place patio pavers or broad flat stones at the strategic points you need to step in order to service the wider beds. I leave mine in place year to year; by late June only I can tell where they are, most of the time.

Accordingly, if your beds are clean, this is exactly not the time to be adding a top layer of mulch (such as shredded leaves, compost or cocoa beans husks) around your emerging perennials. A lot of people do this step too early. Even if you cleaned your beds last fall, the soil may still contain disease spores from last year that winter doesn’t kill. The sun isn’t truly high or hot yet–let it bake and sterilize your garden soil until June 15, then add a hefty half-inch layer of weed-blocking, moisture-retaining mulch.

Cocoa bean husks are ideal for this. All the garden shops carry them now. They’re cheap, easy to spread into a uniform layer, look good and after a light watering lock up into a porous crust. Plus for the next three days your half of the neighborhood smells like chocolate bars! Weeds die instead of growing through them, not that any of us have weeds, plus they help keep plant roots cool. Squirrels may give the area undue attention at first, but after a few days the squirrels and the pleasant odor diminish.

The key to a great vacation is to travel leisurely. This year I’m going to pace myself a little better. Gardening is the most relaxing, rewarding, positively therapeutic activity I know. When it becomes anything else for me it’s an indication I’m attempting too much. Slow down to the point where you can see the daily changes in your landscape. The best is yet to come.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener