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5 Tasks to Prep Your Garden for Spring

These chores lay the groundwork for a great growing season​ 

A woman tipping compost from a bucket into a wheelbarrow in her garden.

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Come spring, gardeners are like horses at the gate, barely able to contain themselves at the thought of getting a jump on the season. 

But, at the risk of overstretching the metaphor, hold your horses. While you might have a long list of spring garden tasks, make sure you’re not too eager, especially for planting, warns Susan Mulvihill, a gardening author, blogger and YouTuber based in Spokane, Washington.

“It’s important not to jump the gun and plant too early,” says Mulvihill, author of The Vegetable Garden Pest Handbook. “There are certain microorganisms in the soil that don’t become active until a certain temperature is reached in the soil. Years ago I would plant my corn too early and I’d say, ‘Why is it so yellow?’ And it was because microorganisms that make nitrogen available to the plant roots weren’t active yet.”

Don’t waste your money irrigating, fertilizing or putting out weed control before plants are actively growing and ready to take it in, says Katy Shook, an area horticulture agent for North Carolina State Extension in Chowan County. “We don’t want to put it out until plants can actively use it,” she says. “So no input unless it’s the right time and the plant’s going to be affected by it.”

What should be on your spring to-do list? If you’re aching to get going, here’s a list of five starter tasks from the experts.

1. Research and make a plan

Understand the limitations of your planting zone and perhaps invest in a soil thermometer (starting at about $15) so you know when it’s the right temperature to plant, says Mulvihill. Check your garden site for hours of sunlight and a practical water source. Make a plot plan of your vegetable garden so you’ll know where to rotate crops. “If the crops from the same plant family are in the same bed year after year after year, those plants are at higher risk of having repeat insect and disease problems,” she explains. Start a garden journal to record what works. Search for the best plants for your zone and area. Kevin Philip Williams, assistant curator of the Denver Botanic Gardens, recommends groups like Plant Select, a nonprofit partly supported by the botanic gardens, that researches plants best suited for the West. Another organization, Chicagoland Grows, concentrates on plants for the Upper Midwest.

2. Clean up

These days flower gardeners are advised to leave the dead stalks of perennials until just before spring’s first growth. This creates a buffer for the plants and harbors beneficial insects such as praying mantises and some bee species, Williams says. Although spring is the time to cut the dead parts back to make room for new growth, he says research shows that insects will return to the site where they emerged to lay their eggs. So he suggests leaving a few stalks standing or creating a wild area in the yard that remains uncut until summer. Or, he says, shred or rough-cut dead material and leave it in the garden as mulch.

3. Prune trees and shrubs

Before leaves emerge, take a good look at your shrubs and trees, Shook advises. “You can look for broken branches, overlapping branches, and dead or diseased branches and cut those out. You want to try to get that done before new growth comes out.” Not sure if a branch is alive? Just use your fingernail to scratch along the woody bark, she says. It will show up green if the plant’s still alive; if you see brown, the plant is a lost cause.

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4. Do some weeding

Now is the time to get a jump on this never-ending chore. “It’s important to get ahead of weeds now, because they compete with our vegetable plants for moisture and nutrients,” says Mulvihill. “They can also act as host plants for insects and disease. So if anybody needs any additional motivation to weed, that ought to do it.”

5. Add compost and mulch

Once you’ve weeded, add one or two inches of compost and other organic amendments, such as bone meal, to the beds. And here’s good news: Current advice says not to bother turning it into the soil or rototilling. “There are all these different kinds of microorganisms that are basically stratified in the soil. They live in different decks, and if a gardener significantly disturbs those layers, it’s going to impact something that’s called the soil food web,” Mulvihill says. “Those microorganisms, they’re decomposing organic matter, they’re making nitrogen and other nutrients available to our plants, and they improve the texture of our soil.” The next step is to put down a layer of mulch to keep down weeds.

After these steps, when the soil warms up, you’ll be ready to plant. ​

Susan Moeller is a contributing writer who covers lifestyle, health, finance and human-interest topics. A former newspaper reporter and editor, she also writes features and essays for the Boston Globe Magazine and her local NPR station, among other outlets.

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