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Six ways to jump-start your spring garden

Ashley Abramson

THE WASHINGTON POST – Depending on where you live, you may not start to see blooms and buds for a few more weeks. But there are steps you can take now to start preparing your garden for the growing season and the longer, warmer days to come.

Most plants stop growing during winter to conserve energy, relying on stored nutrients beneath the soil to sustain them. The arrival of early spring, when an increase in daylight begins to trigger plant growth, is the perfect time to put in a bit of work to help your plants thrive during the year.

Here’s how to prepare for the growing season, according to gardening experts.

– Start with your tools. Dig out your gardening tools and ensure they’re in working condition, a professional certified horticulturist and owner of the Pampered Garden, a DC – based gardening and landscaping business Amy Chaffman, suggested cleaning your pruners and shears with rubbing alcohol to avoid spreading any remnants of diseases from last year.

Sharpen tools that need it, including pruning shears, hedge trimmers and lawn mower blades.

“If you have to use a lot of force with the handles to get a nice, clean cut on a stem, it’s probably time to sharpen them,” said lead horticulturist at the Smithsonian Gardens Sarah Dickert. Charge any battery-operated tools, such as chain saws, weed whackers or lawn mowers, and change the filters on gas-powered models. Equipment manuals should include instructions for recommended regular maintenance; early spring is a good time to take care of such tasks. If you find you’re missing something or need to replace a piece of equipment, don’t wait. According to a horticulture agent at the Greenwood County Cooperative Extension Office in South Carolina to Stephanie Turner, some items may be difficult to find later in the season, especially with continuing shipping and supply chain issues.

– Clean up leaves. Last year’s leaves make a good habitat for pollinators in winter, but now that it’s getting warmer, Dickert said it’s time to clean up any remaining leaves in your flower bed, especially the ones around plants that are susceptible to disease, such as boxwoods or roses.

“Disease spores can still live on leaves and debris that are around those plants and can infect the plants in the new season,” she said. Plus, Chaffman said, raking away leaves helps you see new plant growth and avoid stepping on tender shoots when you’re working in your garden.

– Cut back perennials. Early spring is the ideal time to cut back last year’s spent perennials to prepare for new growth, Dickert said.

She suggested cutting back each stem, leaving six to eight inches above the soil, so you can see where your plants are, and she said to avoid covering growth areas if you add mulch.

Afterward, consider composting trimmed plant matter or cutting it up to create mulch.

Roses, Chaffman said, also need pruning, as do many trees and bushes, for shaping purposes. It’s also best to do this while the plants are dormant. “It’s easier to see what you’re doing without all the foliage,” said extension specialist and director of the Home and Garden Information Center at the University of Maryland Extension Jon Traunfeld.

– Get ahead of the weeds. To keep weeds from overtaking your garden, Traunfeld suggested removing them before the active growing season. Herbicides can damage your garden, so he recommended hand-pulling or using a hoe. You can also contain weeds by covering them in mulch. “If there are weed seeds already in the soil, mulch can prevent sunlight from getting to those seeds, so they won’t germinate,” Dickert said. “If seeds fall on top of the mulch, there isn’t as much growing material. It’s a looser texture, so they can’t germinate easily.”

– Consider fertilising. Perennials, shrubs and trees typically don’t need fertilising, Traunfeld said, especially if you’ve added organic matter to the soil. Too much fertiliser can burn the roots and damage the foliage. Annuals and vegetables, on the other hand, may need a boost.

Testing your soil can indicate whether you need to fertilise – and where. You can pick up a soil-testing kit from your local extension office or purchase one at a nursery or gardening centre. Follow the steps for testing your soil, then drop off or mail the samples according to the product’s instructions, if that’s the type of test you bought.

A lab will analyse the soil and share information about its pH and nutrient content, along with recommendations for fertilising. “A lot of people blindly apply fertiliser, but you’ll get much better results if you know what your soil really needs,” Turner said.

If you plan to fertilise, timing is important. Chaffman recommended waiting until the soil temperature is above 50 degrees.

Aerate your soil first, so the nutrients can go deeper, and apply the fertiliser before mulching.

“You don’t want the fertiliser to have to dissolve through the mulch just to get down to the soil,” Chaffman said.

– Add mulch. A few inches of mulch can prevent soil from washing away in storms, moderate soil temperatures and lock in moisture, Traunfeld said.

If you have mulch left over from last year, Dickert said, you can rake it to freshen up its appearance.

The University of Maryland Extension advises using locally sourced mulch, such as pine needles, grass clippings, leaves and newspapers, which are more environmentally friendly than many store-bought options.