Waking Your Garden Up Slowly

Gillian Sandeman

We often talk about putting our gardens to bed in the fall. We know how important it is to prepare plants for dormancy. We heap the soil over the roses; give new perennials a covering of leaves, mulch or evergreen branches; weed the vegetable garden, and move container plants indoors. The goal, with these and many other autumn tasks, is of course to give our plants the best possible chance of surviving what winter brings.

And now the warm weather seems to be here. There are fewer frosty nights, longer days, more intense sunlight and good rains. Along with these unmistakable signs of spring goes an overwhelming temptation to uncover everything that was covered, do some early planting and get a head start on pruning the roses. But spring is very unpredictable. As we’ve seen recently, warm weather this week can give way to an April blizzard next week; nights with above freezing temperatures can quickly be replaced by a series of killer frosts; and soil which looks warm can in reality be a very cold, inhospitable environment for tender new roots.

Perhaps the most important rule for spring is ‘Don’t be in too much of a rush to get everything done’.

With the arrival of Easter comes the Love of Gardening show at the Evinrude Centre. No one leaves the show without an armful of gardening goodies including perennial and annual plants that we are eager to get growing in the garden. But the ‘wait a bit’ rule really comes into play here. When we bring them home from the show they are not ready for the soil and weather conditions of the spring garden. They have been pampered in greenhouses and need to be acclimatized to the colder outdoors and different light conditions. Put them outdoors for a few hours each day, initially in a shaded spot. Slowly increase the amount of time they stay outside and the amount of light and exposure to wind that they are getting. Bring them indoors over night if the temperature drops below 10 C. After about 10 days they should be ready for planting. This may seem tedious but it’s better than losing those precious plants. Seeds you have started at home should also be hardened off in this way. They will need slow exposure to wind to start strengthening their stems and branches: without this the first strong winds can do real damage to the young leaves and leave the plants struggling to produce new leaves in inhospitable condition. This applies also to plants you bring home from the show or a greenhouse and plan to plant in containers.

Meanwhile the perennials that have over wintered in the garden are putting up green shoots and the temptation is to strip off any protective covering so we can enjoy watching the new growth. As the snow leaves, the mounds of soil covering the roots and lower stems of roses look unsightly and the urge to do some spring-cleaning is very strong. Once again the rule is ‘better safe than sorry.’ Leave that covering on a little longer and remove it slowly. Killer frosts and strong winds can set the plants back. With protection they’ll go on growing strongly and not have to struggle against the elements.

Spending some time pruning at this time of year can satisfy the ‘tidy gene’ that many gardeners have without making life harder for the plants. Just remember not to prune the ‘bleeders’, such as maples, birch and mulberry, or spring flowering shrubs that should be pruned after flowering. Before plants leaf out you can see and remove branches damaged by wind or that have broken or split bark. Cut away branches that are crossing or rubbing against each other. Shrubs look better if they are open without a tangle of branches allowing light and air can penetrate to the center. Wounds, which provide a good entry point for disease and pests, can open where branches are constantly in contact. Wait to prune roses until they are breaking dormancy, that is, until you can see what is dead and what is green and putting out new shoots.

Sometimes we treat our gardens in spring the way over ambitious parents treat their babies and toddlers, always wanting to push them on the next stage before they’re ready. But it’s often better to do things a little later rather than too early. The reward is strong, healthy plants as spring gives way, finally, to summer.