Spring Cleaning In the Garden


Nature’s timetable varies slightly from year to year. That requires the gardener to observe and use judgment. Shoots and buds emerge in spring at their own pace, not by the calender.  An attentive gardener will keep checking spring’s advance and act accordingly. Clean old leaves and debris as well as winter mulches before bulbs sprout to avoid damaging those emerging shoots. Similarly, prune deciduous trees and shrubs before tender shoots expand to avoid accidentally damaging them.

Conversely, don’t rush things. Soils that are waterlogged should not be worked until they dry some or you could destroy soil structure and compact them – a bad situation that could last through the summer. This is much more of a problem on clay and silt soils; less so on sandy soils.  Soil compaction could manifest itself as a concrete-like layer hindering both water absorption and root penetration or rock hard clods which are very difficult to break up making seeding or planting nearly impossible.

One fall, thinking I was doing something good, I spread a 6″ layer of maple leaves over the vegetable garden to be tilled in come spring. The aim was to increase soil organic matter. When spring came with its rains, it was “time” to till the soil. But the thick layer of un-decomposed leaves had absorbed water like a sponge and left the soil beneath saturated. I should have known better but I tilled anyway – it was “time to plant”. I made bricks of mud and leaves that baked hard in the sun. It wasn’t until late summer that the clods started to break down and dissolve. Nothing like learning by doing. Though I caused the mud with the layer of leaves, in some years this could happen naturally. Even without leaves,  heavy rains or a layer of  frost below the soil surface could cause the same conditions. Should conditions delay seeding and planting, don’t fret. It’s amazing how fast late seedings and plantings catch up with earlier ones, often surpassing them.

Spring also offers an opportunity to attack and eliminate major weed infestations. Hard to eliminate,  mat- forming or spreading weeds such as chickweed, clover, mugwort,  ground ivy, sheep sorrel or perennial grasses can be sprayed with herbicides (my choice is Roundup) with less threat to desirable plants. Most garden plants won’t have emerged much from tight crowns so there will be less desirable foliage to work around and you’ll have a better view of the plants you want to spray. Make certain you work on a calm, dry day. Spraying in cool weather will take longer to act so be patient. Completely out of control areas can be over-sprayed and cleared of all vegetation prior to replanting later in spring. Depending on the tenacity of the weeds present, you may need to spray twice.


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