A handful of garden tasks to tackle now

  • Article by: DEB BROWN , Contributing Writer
  • Updated: May 6, 2003 - 11:00 PM
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Deb Brown, contributing garden writer

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After our long, strange winter, we're anxious to get outdoors and do a little yard work. But as the season wears on, it's a good bet that many gardening chores won't seem quite as enticing as they do now. So here are a few tasks to tackle before your springtime enthusiasm wanes:

1. Assess winter damage

A combination of subzero temperatures and little snow meant that many plants went without adequate insulation this winter. As a result, some spring bulbs, flowering perennials and woody plants may have been damaged or killed. Young plants that were not well-established were particularly vulnerable.

This spring, make a point of walking your property every couple weeks, notebook in hand. Keep track of holes where plants fail to appear or are badly damaged. Staff at local nurseries and garden centers can help you find good replacements. Unless you're a gambling gardener, you'll want to avoid plants that are only marginally hardy here.

2. Rake winter away

Before you mow the lawn for the first time, use a lightweight, fan-shaped rake to pick up sticks, rocks and other debris that could damage your mower.

Raking also will rid your lawn of annual weed plants that died last fall, though it won't eliminate the seeds they've already shed. If you had lots of crabgrass or foxtail last year, apply a pre-emergence herbicide and water it lightly into the soil. You won't totally eradicate annual weeds this summer, but you'll have lots fewer to contend with.

3. Feed perennial plants

Even tough perennials such as rhubarb, asparagus, peonies, hostas, ferns and lilies of the valley will grow more luxuriantly when you give them a little fertilizer each spring.

If you're starting a new garden, or haven't checked nutrient levels in an older garden for several years, take the time to send in a soil sample for testing. Visit the University of Minnesota's soil testing lab's Web site at http://soiltest.coafes.umn.edu/ to download instructions.

4. Prune as needed

Prune to remove dead wood and shape your shrubs. Snowball hydrangeas (technically, smooth hydrangeas) may be pruned back heavily because they bloom on new growth, which will develop this year. The same is true for many spireas -- not old-fashioned bridal wreaths, though.

Except for cutting out dead branches, don't prune other shrubs before they finish blooming, unless their flowers are insignificant and you don't mind losing them.

Wait until the end of the month before trimming winter-burned junipers, yew, or arborvitae. By then, new growth may have masked any winter damage.

5. Plan before you shop

Look at the notes you kept from last year's garden (you did take notes, right?) before planning this year's garden. Then make a list to bring to your garden center. A list will help you choose the right number of plants for the right location and may even keep you from overindulging.

Of course, few gardeners are able to stick to a list. There are so many interesting plants to try. Last spring, I gave into temptation and bought a small potted datura (angel's trumpet). Over the summer, it grew to about 4 feet tall and 6 feet wide, and was, everyone agreed, the star of my garden.

Deborah Brown is a horticulturist with the University of Minnesota Extension Service Yard and Garden Line. For help with garden, plant and insect questions, call the Extension service at 612-624-4771 in the Twin Cities metro area or 1-888-624-4771 outstate.

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