11 Gardening Tasks to Prepare Your Garden for Spring
Spring is around the corner, and your vision for a beautiful spring garden is at your fingertips. But what can you do to help ensure your spring garden is a success? In this article, certified master gardener Liz Jaros shares her top tips to prepare your garden for successful spring plantings.
Anxious to hit the ground running when it’s go-time in the garden, green thumbs everywhere start feeling the pull in late winter. If we don’t get outside soon and start digging some holes, we know we’ll lose our minds. But we also know gardening is all about timing. And patience. So we wait.
By early spring, when the soil is warming and the days are growing longer, it’s finally time to don the overalls, slip on our muck boots, and get some dirt under our fingernails. And boy are we ready. But with so much that needs to be done, a fast-ticking seasonal clock, and so many variables, it can be difficult to know exactly what to do and when.
To help you get organized and give you the best possible start to the season, we’ve put together a list of tasks you should be doing each year to prep your garden for spring. Read on for a closer look at these must-do maintenance tasks and get ready to get growing.
- 1 Start Your Seeds
- 2 Prep Your Containers
- 3 Clean and Sharpen Tools
- 4 Prune Shrubs That Flower on New Wood
- 5 Remove Winter Coverings
- 6 Prepare Your Garden Beds
- 7 Make Cut-backs
- 8 Fertilize Flowers and Shrubs
- 9 Divide and Transplant
- 10 Place Trellises, Stakes, Ornaments, and Soaker Hoses
- 11 Mulch Your Planting Area
- 12 Final Thoughts
Start Your Seeds
For many gardeners, the spring planting season begins indoors in early spring or even outdoors with winter sowing. It starts with seed starter trays, grow lights, humidity tents, and sometimes milk jugs, or red solo cups.
This jump-start is ideal for anyone planning to grow edibles or annuals that take a long time to reach their fruiting or flowering stage. And it’s especially crucial for gardeners in regions with short growing seasons.
Seeds can’t be sown directly outside until soil temperatures are warm enough for germination. Established plants cost a lot more than seeds at your local garden center. This is why early seeding is the most time- and cost-efficient method for growing flowers and vegetables at home. But the timing can be tricky, even for seasoned pros.
As a general rule, seeds should be started inside about 6-8 weeks before you plan to move your plants outside. And plants cannot be moved outside until all danger of frost has passed. This will mean different dates to gardeners in different parts of the world. Use your region’s average last frost date to calculate your seed start date.
If you want to skip growing plants indoors, you can winter sow them in containers outdoors. This is a controversial method of seed starting, but it has gained quite a bit of traction over the last few years. If you start seeds indoors, consider soil blocking to eliminate the need for plastic seed trays.
Based on average spring temperatures over a number of years, the regions and subregions of the USDA Hardiness Map are each assigned a date after which the risk of freezing temperatures is considered minimal.
Once this date is reached, and once your seedlings have sprouted 2 to 3 sets of true leaves, you can go ahead and transplant them into the garden with reasonable confidence.
In higher grow zones where freezing temperatures are not an issue, many seed varieties can be sown directly into the garden in spring. Cool-weather vegetables like peas, carrots, lettuce, and spinach as well as most annuals can all be sown at this time of year.
Seasoned dirt diggers have long used the blooming forsythia as a sign that it’s okay to sow seeds directly in the ground. When they bloom, it means soil temperatures have reached 55 degrees. Obviously, this will occur much earlier in Louisiana than it will in Michigan.
Prep Your Containers
In the days that precede acceptable yardwork weather, duck out to the garage or potting shed to take a survey of your pots and tools. Dispose of containers that are cracked or no longer useful. Dump out any dirt that remains in the pots you plan to use this year.
Dirt from last year’s plantings should not be reused. Older dirt may have picked up bacteria or fungus during the off-season.
Check to make sure drainage holes are not clogged and add new ones if you remember a particular pot being waterlogged last year. Clean containers with a solution that’s 9 parts water and 1 part bleach.
A stiff bristled brush or steel wool can be used to scrub away any mildew and stains. Rinse thoroughly and leave containers in the sun for a few days.
Fill with potting soil when you’re ready to plant spring annuals. In lower zones, cold-season annuals like pansies, viola, and snapdragons can usually be potted up ahead of your region’s average last frost date.
Each of these plants can tolerate an occasional cold snap. And they can always be covered up temporarily. But to be safe, wait as long as you possibly can.
Clean and Sharpen Tools
This very important maintenance task should be performed religiously each spring. It’s another prep step you can undertake while you’re waiting for outdoor-friendly weather. Begin by taking stock of your tool kit.
A basic gardener’s bucket should include at least a bypass pruner, a trowel, a garden fork, and pruning shears. The shed should include at least a rake, a spade, a garden hoe, and some loppers.
Begin by cleaning each tool from top to bottom with a solution of 9 parts water to 1 part bleach. Use steel wool or a wire brush to remove as much dirt, grit, and rust as possible. Like dirt, tools can harbor disease over the winter and should be thoroughly disinfected before the new season. Rinse and allow tools to dry completely, ideally in the sun, before continuing.
Small tools will need to be sharpened at the beginning of every season. Large tools require it only every few years. A local hardware store or handyman can be called on to perform this task for you. Or you can do it yourself with a high grit sandpaper or sharpening file.
Always run the sharpener in one direction, never back and forth. Follow with an application of linseed oil or some kind of lubricant to keep blades passing smoothly through dirt and plant tissue. Wood handles might also need sanding and oiling to prevent cracking and prolong their longevity.
Prune Shrubs That Flower on New Wood
The best time to prune most summer flowering shrubs, most rose bushes, and all evergreen shrubs is in late winter or early spring before they begin actively growing for the season. But it’s VERY important that you not prune shrubs that have already set their buds. Do so and you will be in for a major disappointment when flowering time comes.
They shouldn’t be pruned until after they have finished flowering. But there are also a handful of summer bloomers that flower on old wood (big leaf, oak leaf, and climbing hydrangea as well as all climbing roses). So, you have to be careful.
If you’re unsure whether a shrub in your yard should be pruned in spring or not, examine it for flower buds. They will be plumper, more rounded, and often more colorful than leaf buds. And they will be found either along a branch’s axis or at its terminal ends.
With the previous exceptions noted, it’s safe and ideal to prune most other ornamental garden shrubs as a part of your annual spring cleanup.
New plantings should be left alone for a few years. Established shrubs should be pruned with the intention of thinning its interior, shaping its exterior, and removing no more than ⅓ of its total branches. With that in mind, here are the steps for pruning most ornamental shrubs, roses, and evergreens.
- Use a lopper to remove dead wood and the oldest canes at the plant base.
- These will be gray-black and more brittle than new wood.
- Cuts should be clean and angled away from the branches on which they are growing.
- This will prevent moisture from collecting in the notch.
- Move on to branches that are crossing or oddly shaped.
- Cut them back to their bases as well.
- Next, take a step back and evaluate your shrub’s overall shape.
- Determine if it needs to be shorter, rounder, or narrower.
- Use a hand pruner or lopper to make shaping cuts just above a set of leaves.
- Again, cuts should angle away from branches.
- Step back often to assess your progress.
- Keep going until the desired shape is reached.
Remove Winter Coverings
If you’re anticipating the arrival of spring flowering bulbs like tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths, you’ll want to make sure winter mulch layers have been thinned or pulled back in the beds where they’re planted. This will give the sun a chance to warm the soil and coax them out of dormancy.
All pine boughs, rose cones, burlap wraps, leaf covers, and tarps should be removed when temperatures hit 50. Removing them earlier might put perennials at risk of freeze-thaw damage, roses at risk of bud damage, and pollinators at risk of premature habitat loss.
Prepare Your Garden Beds
Once winter coverings have been removed and the ground is workable, it’s time to get your beds ready for a new season. Begin with a thorough clean-out. Remove any leaves, sticks, and debris that have found their way into the garden since you last cleaned up in fall. Next, pull any weeds that have persisted or sprouted when you weren’t looking.
Examine the soil for signs of disease. This might be a fuzzy gray mold or a white ring around a plant’s base. If fungus or bacteria is detected, remove affected soil promptly from the garden. Plan to monitor nearby plants for infection as the season progresses.
Ideally, you tested and amended the soil in fall. If so, you shouldn’t have to add any nutrients in spring, but if you forgot or ran out of time, you can still do it now.
Turn over the top 10 inches or so of dirt and work some organic matter into the mix. Compost, peat moss, leaf mold, and decomposed manure can all be added now to help boost soil quality.
Survey your beds’ borders and make necessary repairs or replacements to edging materials that have seen better days. Shovel-cut beds (those with no hardscape separating them from the lawn) should be cleaned up with an electric edger or a flat-edged shovel. This will create a sharp definition between yard and garden.
While some gardeners can’t rest in fall until every last corner of the yard has been cut back, cleaned up, and perfectly prepped for winter, many of us find ourselves with a scattering of plants that are still standing after the snow melts.
Sometimes this is intentional.
We know birds will pluck seeds from the ornamental grasses and faded hydrangea blossoms all winter long. And sometimes it’s just life getting in the way of our fall cleanup plans.
But whatever the reason, any perennial in the yard that still has flowers on it from the previous season should be cut back in spring. Just be careful not to damage new growth in the process. Many plants will have already sent up a basal rosette of new leaves by this time.
In temperate regions, where ornamental grass is perennial and not evergreen, grass clumps will be brittle, broken, and willowy in spring. Using a hedge trimmer or shears. Cut them back as close to the crown as possible (without damaging fresh green blades) to allow for new growth.
Gardeners who’ve left faded hydrangea blossoms in place for aesthetic or wildlife reasons should get out and deadhead them at the very least. Smooth hydrangeas and most panicle hydrangeas can be moderately to severely pruned in early spring. They will bloom on wood that grows this season.
Late-blooming perennials like sedum, black-eyed Susans, and asters that may have endured late in the season and held up all winter should be cut down to within a few inches of the ground in spring as well.
Fertilize Flowers and Shrubs
Spring flowering bulbs should be fertilized as soon as leaves have breached the soil surface. This is your indication that they are waking up and preparing to flower. For liquid applications use a 10-10-10 ratio fertilizer at a rate of one pound per 100 square feet or 1 tablespoon per gallon for smaller gardens.
Slow-release fertilizer should be applied to mixed perennial beds in spring as soon as green shoots are visible. This will help them acquire strong roots, colorful flowers, and vibrant, healthy foliage. Again, use a 10-10-10 ratio for even nutrient distribution.
Granular fertilizer is your best choice for a slow-release application since pellets will break down gradually throughout the season. Sprinkle it around your emerging plants (but not directly on them!). Use a rate of 4 tablespoons per 10 square feet.
Evergreen shrubs like boxwoods, holly, and euonymus often emerge from winter with pale green to yellow leaves. This indicates a nitrogen deficiency. Evergreens should be fertilized before they show new growth with a 10-6-4 formula that emphasizes nitrogen over phosphorous and potassium.
Use slow-release granular food or plant spikes marketed specifically for evergreens around your shrubs’ driplines. Never touch leaves directly with the product.
Flowering shrubs should also be fertilized in spring. They will benefit from a higher portion of potassium to phosphorous and nitrogen. An NPK ratio of 8-4-12 is ideal for flowering, woody ornamentals growing in good soil with no deficiencies. Again, use granular, slow-release fertilizer and make sure plants are watered regularly after application.
Roses should be fertilized when they begin to leaf out and after you’ve seen about 6 inches of new growth. While this will occur at different times in different hardiness zones, most roses and rose shrubs will be coming to life at some point in spring.
Early rose fertilizer applications will be even (10-10-10) in normal soil as vegetative growth is important during this time period. Organic materials such as fish oil, bone meal, manure, and compost can be used to boost rose nutrients as well.
Divide and Transplant
While fall is always the optimal time for dividing and transplanting perennials, these tasks can also be done in spring. If you notice some crowding when your daylilies begin to emerge, if you’d like to make some room for some new dahlias, or if you intended to move some hostas last year but never got around to it, you can still do those things. But you’ll need to act quickly.
Spring divisions should be performed when leaves have breached the surface but are not fully developed. For most plants, the process involves digging up the entire plant and using a flat-edged shovel or knife to slice through the roots.
This creates two or more sections from the original. These sections can now be replanted elsewhere in the yard or given away.
The transplanting process involves little more than digging up an entire plant or shrub and relocating it to a new spot in the yard as if you were installing a new plant. This task can be done in spring as well. Just make sure all transplants receive plenty of water while they are establishing. They will likely be stressed by the disruption.
Place Trellises, Stakes, Ornaments, and Soaker Hoses
Before plants emerge and shrubs leaf out, it’s a good idea to get your structural and non-living garden elements ready to go for the season. Trellises should be taken out of storage, cleaned up, and secured in place. Use string or garden ties so they’ll be ready to go when the peas take off or your clematis starts running.
Tomato cages should be unstacked and sanitized with a solution of 9 parts water to 1 part bleach. Garden stakes and canes should be cleaned up and placed near perennials that you know will need support when they shoot up. And soaker hoses should be put in place before plants completely breach the soil surface.
You might also consider power washing your patio, walkway, or siding. At this time, the procedure will be less likely to harm plants that have not fully emerged. And you should definitely give your yard art a spit-shine before placing orbs, statues, and water features in their summer garden spots.
Mulch Your Planting Area
Before weeds get a chance to sprout in your newly prepped beds, make sure mulch levels are 2-3 inches thick beneath your trees and shrubs. If you applied mulch in fall or have enough in place from last spring, consider a topcoat to refreshen the color. Wood chips like cedar mulch will likely have faded during the off-season.
Always use organic materials like shredded bark, pine needles, straw, compost, or mulched leaves to insulate your garden beds. These things will add nutrients and texture to the soil as they decompose, resulting in a more fertile content.
Assess perennial beds for appropriate mulch levels. Make sure layers are thin around spring bulbs and plants like irises that don’t thrive in heavily mulched beds. Pull mulch away from tree and shrub trunks since prolonged contact can cause problems with rot and disease.
Successful gardeners are not afraid of hard work. We know preparation is the key to creating joyful, fruitful, and beautiful outside spaces.
As you wait patiently for another winter to pass and for spring to open the door to a new season, make a list of all the tasks you need to complete this year and start chipping away at them one by one. In a few short months, when the yard is in full bloom and the garden is buzzing, you’ll be really glad you did!