Most shrub and tree pruning is best done in late winter – that is, now.

Gardeners are eager for spring, no doubt, but we must restrain our impulses to uncover the plants, pull back the mulch, and walk around the garden. You do not have to tie yourself to the living room chair, however. Some early yard and garden tasks and preparations are best done in March and many people miss the moment.

Let’s get going on the early season planning and projects list. They include pruning, a certain kind of shopping, and working on the infrastructure.

Bare-root buying and planting

Bare-root planting of shrubs, trees and fruit plants (raspberries, blackberries) offers a higher survival rate than other methods – if it’s done correctly. But the method has limits: You must find those plants, keep them dormant until planting time, and plant them before they leaf out. It’s a narrow window.

In our region, Turnbull’s Nursery is the primary source, both retail and wholesale, for bare-root plants in our region. A few other nurseries may have a limited supply of bare-root products, but the Turnbulls are specialists. They have developed their techniques and soil, acquired or designed unique equipment, and have the building dedicated to keeping a great many plants cold at least into April.

The way it works: They open March 13, for you to peruse the cold barn full of bare-root woody plants. You purchase and they hold the plants until some day in April when you can pick up and plant them. It’s a great system if you can synchronize the steps.

When is pruning time?

Most shrub and tree pruning is best done in late winter – that is, now. Many homeowners find this surprising. They habitually cut back the landscape plants in autumn, or they do (or hire to do) a one-shot yard cleanup in midspring (or whenever they can get the landscape company to come).

Soon I will provide a basic pruning primer with how to cut, where to cut, which plants to prune at this time of year, and which to let grow and flower first. For now, let these principles inform your decisions about pruning:

Why now? Woody plants will be breaking dormancy during these weeks, and they are ready to direct lots of energy toward growing shoots and leaves. Whenever you make a pruning cut, you are directing the new growth, telling the plant “Go this way, not that way.” The plant is more ready now than at any other time to follow your cues and put out new shoots and leaves where you desire. You can also see what you are doing, before leaves come out.

Another advantage of selective late winter pruning is that you may cause the future flowers or fruit to grow bigger. Exception: do not prune early spring flowering plants such as lilacs and forsythias if you want to see those early flowers. And leave the sticks of big-leaf hydrangeas (H. macrophylla) alone.

Pruning does not mean whacking them back. If your yard is like Sleeping Beauty’s thicket, have at it. But most plants should never be topped or whacked back to make them shorter. Except for some forgiving plants that are typically molded into hedges or geometric shapes (yews, weigelas, boxwoods, some spiraeas), good pruning is the art of making individual, selective cuts. Pruning classes will be offered in March or April in garden centers or at shows such as Plantasia, March 23-26. Attend one, or get a book.

Get ready to help the soil

Please notice that I’m not saying to start working your soil. Unless you have very light, sandy soil (rare) or well-drained raised beds filled with a light mix, you are damaging your soil structure if you till or walk on wet soil. Clay soil is typical in WNY, and it compacts severely and takes years to repair. If you are walking under trees or around shrubs you are also damaging fragile roots. Mixing in compost or other organic matter (leaf mold, straw, manure) is the cure for compacted soil.

So what can you do early without harming the soil? You can plan your soil improvement campaign and start gathering resources. Possibilities:

• Collect free organic matter: This could mean piling or bagging your own leaves and landscape debris during a dry spell, when you’re inclined to rake. It might mean collecting piles of your neighbors’ discarded pine needles or leaves. Or you may have sources of compost from your town or manure from a farm or zoo. Go get it.

• The Big Yellow Bag: This good garden soil product offers a very smart delivery method – a neat bag (1.2 cubic yards), delivered to your driveway, that can be closed up so you have lots of time to use it in your beds. If you order it for early delivery there is some price break.

• Bagged or bulk compost: Home shows or flower shows usually have products for you to feel or sample, and most garden centers have compost lines to recommend to amend your soil when it thaws. Some deliver in bulk and others offer high quality bagged products such as Bumper Crop Compost (Coast of Maine Organics). Do this shopping early, rather than purchasing compost as an afterthought when you are in a checkout line in the middle of May.

Infrastructure and hardscape

You can’t do all landscape architecture projects in late winter – so much depending upon weather – but you can make plans with professional landscapers (CNLPs) or landscape architects (L.A.s) and get on their schedules. Plantasia is a good place to find experts and hear talks as well.

Meet them and begin to figure out what you need and what they can offer. Don’t be shy about revealing your budget. Do you need better drainage or a rain garden or bio-retention system? Do you want a patio, deck, path or pergola? Would an in-ground watering system make life easier, and professional landscape lighting increase the beauty and value of your home?

This is the time to dream, plan, interview and schedule the experts.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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