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Don't be in a rush to start spring cleanup

Two weeks ago on a sunny springlike day remember those? -- a fine Buffalo gardener named Annabelle wagged her finger and said to her gardening husband Jim: "Sally would yell at you for this; it's too soon to pull back the mulch! You'll see it in the paper!"

This one's for Annabelle.

>Premature spring

Now, Jim really does know what he's doing. (They have one of the most photographed gardens in Buffalo.) You can take some chances and break some rules in a sheltered city garden that would be bad ideas in the Southtowns or more exposed gardens.

But at risk of being repetitive, for the sake of all the new gardening enthusiasts and homeowners out there, let me say it again:

March is really too soon to take the mulch off the flower beds. One robin doesn't make it spring.

We always have snowstorms in March, April and sometimes in May. Our last average frost date is May 21. (As I began to write this, I was looking out at 8 inches of snow that fell the night before on my hill in East Aurora, and Buffalo had a few inches, too. Nighttime temperatures are staying in the 20s all week.)

As eager as we are for the gardening season, there are a few good reasons for slowing down most of the spring tasks.

The warm patch of weather did make me want to pull the mulch off the perennial bed and make room for the darling shoots and bulbs starting to poke up. Imagine how vulnerable they would have been had I taken off their blanket, and then the snow and freezing nights came!

A covering of mulch keeps temperature changes gradual, keeps frost or ice off tender plant tissue, and basically slows them down. The more sunlight and warmth they feel, the quicker they spring forth, and that's not good.

Then there's the annual urge to spread mulch (one of the characteristic spring behaviors of the American suburban male in particular). The urge is often accompanied by a need to tidy up the yard and move yard furniture and grills outside.

Unlike European tradition, Americans want mulch spread evenly, darkly, around foundation plantings and garden beds.

However, like all good things, too much is too much. And in this case it's too soon.

For people with clayey, damp sites that drain poorly, it would be smarter to rake a little mulch off your planting beds to let the soil dry out for a while. Or at least rough up the surface of your mulched areas with a rake, to dislodge seedlings that are taking hold, and aerate it slightly.

If you do need to spread a little more mulch on landscape plantings, I still suggest that most of you wait a few more weeks.

One reason is to let the soil dry a little. The second reason is to keep you from compacting the garden soil as long as possible. And third, if you let a few perennial weeds emerge and annual weed seedlings germinate, you can pull or hoe most of them and then, Bam!, dump 2 inches of new mulch on their remains later. They will be discouraged.

Finally, if you have a well-drained garden and the mulch has thinned, go ahead and spread a mulch of your choice, as long as you know where all the perennials are. Some perennials hide out and don't emerge until nearly June. They will eventually poke through a couple of inches of mulch, but there's a limit to their strength and courage for the project.

>How much mulch?

It's overdone often. Try to keep it to 3 inches deep or so. If you're putting fresh mulch on every year for looks, then remove some of the old mulch first. Watch that the mulch doesn't smother or crowd small plants. More than 3 inches gets heavy and prevents water or air from reaching the plant roots. And never, ever, shovel mulch up against the trunk of a tree or shrub. That so-called "volcano mulching" is wrong, stupid and destructive to the tree; the trunk will rot.

>Picking up sticks

It does feel great to rake the lawn, pick up sticks, and see the property looking neat once the snow recedes. But you are not doing the lawn any good by walking on wet soil.

Your footsteps compact the soil where tender grass plants are growing, damage the tiny plants themselves and crush the air spaces out of the soil. It's hard for tiny plant roots to push through cementlike soil. In theory, we should stay off the lawn until it has dried out some. (Perhaps pick up the huge branches and wait for finer grooming until it's time to mow?)

>Weeding or waiting?

It's good to pull perennial weeds out (dandelions) when the soil is damp. Still, try to do it from the garden path or edge, to avoid that compaction.

There is no rush, though. If you let them get a better start there's more to grab so you can pull out entire root systems. Be sure the ground has thawed 12 inches down, too, since every little bit of the root of many weeds can produce a whole new plant.

As for annual weeds, most won't germinate this early, so you have plenty of time. Be sure you have a hoe and sharpen it. Then you'll be ready to scrape it across the soil or mulch whenever weed seedlings are a 1/2 -inch tall. It's the easiest way to stop a lot of weeds quickly. The fallen seedlings cannot perk up again.

>What about the bulbs?

I am always asked what to do about the bulbs that surge boldly forward when we know we'll have more snow. Someone even asked me how she could keep the magnolia from flowering too early.

Alas, we have limited powers. Bulbs will emerge and flowers will open when they get certain signals of light or heat. Perennials and bulbs will usually stall in place when a sudden freeze comes on, and most then emerge just fine. Unfortunately, many flowering shrubs and trees (notably some hydrangeas) lose their buds during spring freezes. They would rather live in Zone 6. Keep the Shrub Coats on them, or cover smaller specimens with a sheet before a freezing night.

In short, spring is here, but only tentatively. It's not barbecue season, nor planting time, and it sure isn't time to uncover your plant babies.

Annabelle was right. Slow down, everybody. (Sorry, Jim, for being such a nag!).

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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