As the weather warms, the sound of birds and the sight of bulging flower buds calls us out to the yard once again. This past winter was particularly brutal over much of the country, but the seemingly endless days of cabin fever have come to an end.
All that cold weather may have given some of your plants a bit of a beating, so here's a few pointers on bringing the landscape back to life.
After a cold winter like this one, sometimes the more frost-sensitive plants in the landscape never wake up from dormancy - or parts of them, anyways - especially the tips.
This is the time to prune out anything that doesn't show signs of life, whether it's a dead branch in a tree, an evergreen shrub that is half brown or a tender potted perennial that should have been brought indoors for winter, but was forgotten. Just make sure it's truly dead before cutting and not just late to emerge from dormancy - a dead twig snaps off cleanly, while a live but dormant twig bends without breaking.
Most perennials die down to their roots in fall, leaving a mass of dead leaves and stalks to clean up in spring. These can be cut right to the base of the plant where you will probably see the tips of tiny green sprouts starting to emerge from the roots. Removing the dead stuff makes the landscape look a hundred times better, but it also makes space for new growth to occur. This is especially important for ornamental grasses, day lilies and irises.
Removing Organic Debris
All that pruning and primping will generate a big pile of organic waste. While you're at it, rake up any residual leaves, twigs and branches that came down over winter (or that you never got around to picking up in fall). It's astonishing how sharp a freshly raked bed looks compared to one that is littered with debris. Once the plants are growing full tilt it's hard to get in there with a rake, so early spring is the time to do it.
You may be tempted to put your organic waste on the curb for city pick up, or pile it out back if you live in a rural area, but remember that there is nutritive value in organic matter for plants and by removing it every year you are slowly depleting your soil. Instead, feed the leaves, yard trimmings and small twigs through a shredder and repurpose them as mulch for the summer time. In their original form they look messy, but ground to a consistent texture they look as good or better than a bag of mulch purchased from the store.
Top Dressing with Compost
Fertilizing in early spring is risky because the lush green growth induced by the extra nitrogen is very susceptible to being damaged by a late frost - it's better to let the plants wake up in their own time and wait to fertilize until they've put on a bit of growth.
But, early spring is a great time to enrich the soil with compost. After you rake up around beds of trees, shrubs, vines and perennials, spread an inch or two of compost or other organic soil conditioner over the surface of the soil. This is a tried and true method to building fertile topsoil over the long term which cuts down on the need to fertilize. It also creates a nice finished look to the yard to cap off your spring clean-up.
Visually, the dark color of the compost makes the light green leaves pop out as they emerge, but the color also absorbs heat and gets the growing process underway. Later, when the heat hits in early summer, you'll want to mulch those beds to cool the soil and conserve moisture, but a top dressing of compost makes an excellent springtime mulch.