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Great Gardening: Be patient, tackling tasks too soon can do more harm than good

Winter is not just a quarter of the calendar. Winter is a time – here at least – during which plants are dormant, mostly. As spring approaches, many begin to push experimental shoots and buds out into the light. If you have any doubt that it is still winter in Western New York, if you get early spring fever, just look back to St. Patrick’s days of the past. Did you not march in or attend a parade in a snowstorm? Do you remember a Dingus Day party with snowbanks lining the parking lots? How many times has Plantasia (the WNY landscape and garden show running March 31 to April 3 at the Fairgrounds Event Center and Artisan Hall in Hamburg), been accompanied by ice storms? Winter is a time of waiting and watching for signs of spring – but we really must be patient.

Timing is critical

We humans are naturally eager to clean up the dregs of winter and pretty up our yards. However normal those urges, know that you can do considerable harm by doing many garden tasks too soon. I prefer to be a positive person and not a naysayer, but a few “Don’ts” are in order:

• Don’t prune roses yet. The old adage is: “Prune roses when the forsythias bloom.” That’s likely to happen in about a month, but even if some hot days forced a few early forsythias, the roses shouldn’t be rushed. When you cut a rose stem (just above an outward-facing bud), it stimulates fresh growth. When a sudden April or May freeze occurs, the new growth will be damaged, and the stem will die back from the level of the cut. It’s much smarter to let the old rose canes stand until mid-spring, when the cuts don’t risk further dieback, and the new growth will be vigorous and remain so.

• Don’t pull off the mulch. One of the best functions of mulch is to prevent extreme temperature fluctuations – and early spring is exactly when those extremes occur. If mulch is covering perennial crowns or the root areas of woody plants, it will help those plants greatly if you leave it in place. If mulch is covering bare soil in a vegetable or annuals bed, then you have a choice: Leaving it on will prevent weeds seeds from germinating, but the soil will remain cool much longer. If you remove the mulch, the soil will warm sooner but you will have to watch closely and hoe or pull the emerging weed seedlings.

• Don’t uncover the shrubs. If you used shrub coats or covers, they have probably helped your shrubs greatly. Such covers protect vulnerable plants from deer (and rabbits – if they are fastened firmly at soil level). The covers prevent wind damage and moisture loss on rhododendrons, hollies, arborvitae and other vulnerable plants. The covers also help big-leaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) to retain their buds through the freezing/thawing extreme changes of spring. I have never been sorry I waited until quite late – May even – to remove the covers. The quality products (Shrub Coat or Shrub Cover) let light through, so the plants you finally uncover will be bright green and vibrant.

• Don’t till when the soil is wet, as doing so compacts the soil. Generally it’s way too soon to think about turning over garden soil anyway. An exception would be raised beds, in which the soil dries out sooner, but in that case you don’t need to till. Instead, just plant into little holes or trenches in the top of the soil without disturbing the weed seeds.

• Don’t walk on the lawn or tree root areas or landscape beds. Especially in WNY where most soil contains lots of clay, walking on damp soil does long-lasting damage to soil structure. In spring it’s especially harmful because it’s exactly the time that delicate rootlets and root hairs are beginning to reach outward in the soil to get moisture and nutrients.

• Don’t fertilize the lawn – generally. I hesitate to write this because there are many companies and lawn programs that start in spring and may provide the kind of products that support healthy lawns. For instance, slow-release, organic products can generally go down any time. Work with lawn professionals if that is your preference. However, for DIY homeowners, Cornell University trainers teach master gardeners and consumer horticulture advisors to wait until Memorial Day weekend to fertilize the lawn. The reason: Nitrogen fertilizers push turf grass growth, which is not necessary in spring when the soil harbors lots of nitrogen and the grass is already growing vigorously. The sooner you push the lawn to grow, the sooner you have to cut it. Just wait.

• Don’t prune any shrubs or trees that flower in the spring (unless you need to cut off diseased, dead, or rubbing/crossing branches). After lilacs or forsythias flower – that’s the time.

What you can do

All these “don’ts” should not keep you indoors when you’re itching to be in the yard. Some very good steps are well worth doing:

• Do gather sticks, twigs, old leaves, dead annuals and garden debris to start a new compost heap. If your old compost isn’t ready to sort out and spread, just keep the new material in garbage bags until you can begin the layering cycle again.

• Do clean out bird houses if you have not. Male bluebirds have already been spotted, scouting for love nests to lure a mate.

• Do rake lawns, working from paths or sidewalks when possible; avoid walking on wet lawns.

• Do pull or dig weeds and cut back dead perennial sticks (if you can without tromping on the soil).

• Do poke the peas into the cold ground (an inch deep) and plant lettuces and leafy greens in raised beds or wherever you have thawed, penetrable soil.

• Do prune fruit trees and most deciduous trees and shrubs – but look for a class or book to guide you. Wrong pruning can deform or set back plant growth worse than no pruning at all.

Take heart. Soon we will have true spring weather, the kind we can trust to last. For now, be patient.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.