Spring is one of the busiest and most exciting times to spend in the garden. It is a time to prepare ourselves for the season ahead and clean up winter debris. Refer to the tabs, March, April and May, at the top of the page for suggested tasks in the garden by month, but before you get started, here are some rules of thumb to keep in mind.
A Few Golden Rules for Spring Gardening
- Never garden in the rain or when the ground is wet. If you do, you will compact the soil, destroy the soil structure and suffocate roots.
- Now that your garden is empty and down to the bare bones, you can see where you'd like to plant bulbs that will bloom next year. Draw a rough sketch of your garden and mark the areas where you would like to plant. If you wait until the fall to make your decisions, your garden will be so overgrown that you will have forgotten where you intended to place the bulbs.
- Be careful if you are digging in your perennial bed early in the season. Many of your established perennials will be slow to appear.
- Be patient. Some things can be planted early, such as early season vegetable crops and cold-hardy annuals. Otherwise, it is important to wait until after the last frost warning before planting half-hardy annuals and tender vegetables. In the New York City area, the last killing frost usually occurs between April 20 and 30, and the last frost warning comes around May 15.
- Start weeding as soon as weeds appear. If you wait until weeds go to seed, you will spend the entire summer weeding. It's a tedious task, so weed often for short periods of time. A half an hour here or there in the evening will be more enjoyable than a lost Saturday afternoon.
Preparing a Garden in Spring
- When tidying your garden in the spring, be careful of emerging perennials and bulbs. If you have planted bulbs in a section of your garden, it is best to leave leaf litter in the area (it acts as insulation for the new shoots and you do do not have to worry about damaging the foliage with your rake.)
- When planting a new area in your garden, the most important thing to remember is to amend (improve) your soil. Amending your soil improves soil structure, fertility and drainage. You can amend your soil with compost, composted manure (at least 3 to 6 months old), or any type of organic mulch such as Sweet Peet™. Add what you can. Four inches is optimal for a newly planted area but so much organic matter can be expensive, so a little is better than nothing. Adding 1/4", 1/2", or 1" to any established garden is a good and doable annual practice.
- When preparing a bed for planting, turn the bed by digging down the depth of your digging fork or spade (approximately 6 to 8 inches). Don't overdo it. Gardening is about enjoyment and relaxation; you do not want to find yourself with aching muscles at the end of the day.
- Once the soil is turned, it is all fluffed up. Rake soil level and tamp it down. Depending on the size of the bed, this can be done with a rake or by lightly and quickly walking over the surface.
- Fertilize your garden when you plant. There are many different types of fertilizers on the market. Choose one that suits your style of gardening and follow the instructions on the label. Annuals, vegetables and any heavy feeders (e.g. roses) will need to be fertilized several times during the growing season. Most perennials can thrive with very little fertilizer. Remember N=nitrogen (for leaf growth), P=phosphorous (for root and flower growth), and K=potassium (for general health and vigor of your plant). Granular fertilizers should be knocked off the foliage and scratched into the surface. Liquid fertilizer has a faster uptake and will have to be applied more often--usually it is best to dilute the doses recommended on the instructions by either 1/4 or 1/2.
- Lay your plants out, ensuring that they are properly spaced, and plant them. Small perennials will need 6 to 12 inches, medium 12 to 18 inches, and large 18 to 36 inches apart. If the soil is on the damp side in the spring, lay planting boards out to stand on or step on while planting. This will evenly distribute your weight.
- Prune summer-flowering shrubs in early spring before the new growth starts.
- Prune repeat-blooming roses in late March or early April. Standard advice is to prune them when forsythia is blooming.
- Prune spring-flowering shrubs after they have flowered or when the flower starts to fade.
- Wait until May or June to prune your evergreen shrubs and hedges.
- It is important to plant all of your perennials approximately 6 weeks before the summer heat sets in, so that their roots have a chance to establish. Try to finish planting by mid-May or early June.
- if you are fertilizing your perennials, wait until you see 2 to 3 inches of new growth on the plants. You can either fertilize your perennials with a low-level fertilizer every year or fertilize them only when you plant and divide them. It is simply a matter of preference. Don't over-fertilize any of your plants. It produces weak plants and encourages pests and diseases.
Annuals and Vegetables
- Plant rows so they run north to south. This will allow the crop to have equal exposure to the sun.
- Plant crops in succession: plant half a row and then wait two weeks to plant the other half of the row. Then you will not be inundated when it is time to harvest.
- Rotate your crops. Do not plant the same thing in the same place every year. This will ensure that the soil is not depleted of certain nutrients and that crop-specific diseases do not have a chance to build up in the soil.
- Plant cold-hardy annuals such as pansies early in the spring. Wait until after the last frost warning (May 15) to plant out half-hardy annuals and tropical plants.
*These gardening tips are applicable for an average year in the southeastern New York region: USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 6a and 6b, which include New York City, Northern New Jersey, Rockland County, Westchester County, Southern Connecticut, and parts of Long Island. Plant hardiness zones refer to geographic areas where the growing season of plants is determined by the time of killing frosts in the spring and fall. Even within zones, climatic factors such as altitude, proximity to water, wind exposure, winter sun exposure and snow cover contribute to the existence of different "microclimates" and can influence plant adaptability.