6 pre-spring chores i’m anxious to do

first-eranthisI AM FEELING URGENT, THOUGH THE MUD says wait, and there’s barely a thing but me and a winter aconite (above) awake. But as soon as I can approach the beds and borders, or really walk around here on solid (not squishy) ground, here’s what I am going to hurry and do:

1. Target earliest bloomers like Euphorbia for immediate cutbacks. Don’t try letting them re-grow from up above; it’s too strenuous for their good. Ask them to push anew from the base by giving an end-of-winter severe haircut, down near the base. Even later-bloomers that grow from those dense, cushion-like crowns (Sedum spectabile, such as ‘Autumn Joy,’ comes to mind) will be easier to clean up now than once they start to push.

epimedium-late-winter2. Evergreen or otherwise-persistent perennial foliage (European ginger or Asarum europaeum, Helleborus, Epimedium) that will soon be replaced with a fresh flush of leaves needs to go, too. Yes, the plant will do just fine even if you leave it on…but will look so much tidier if you snip off and compost last year’s leaves. Another that I need to get to fast in this category: Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon,’ the grasslike variegated sweet flag. Impossible to clean it up once it gets going again.

miscanthus-late-winter3. Cut down ornamental grasses. Mice and all the rest of the garden undesirables are thinking it’s the Maternity Ward in there, I fear, so off with their heads (the grasses’, that is), right by the base, asap.

4. Empty bird boxes. Bluebirds won’t accept a dirty box, and I always hope for at least one family of bluebirds a year. Wear a glove when you do this task; more than one nesting mouse has run up my arm in the process. Ugh.

5. Muck fallen leaves from the frog ponds. This annual ritual, accomplished gently with endless swoops of a fish net, digs up more than debris. Then I’ll get the filters and pumps set up and running, too.

6. Spinach. As in, plant it. (And peas, too, as long as the soil is not sodden…maybe the raised beds will be ready soon here for peas.)

One thing I am not going to do, contrary to the American obsessive-compulsive lawn disorder I was brought up to believe in: feed the lawn. If I feed, it’s in fall, when the food will be used to encourage lawn-strengthening downward root growth instead of green stuff up top. I may order some all-natural organic lawn food during the spring sales, but it will be for fall use.

For a full March chore list, be sure to go here. Last month’s and next month’s are also available, if you’re a tad colder or warmer than I am here in Zone 5B.

  1. Ailsa says:

    Not the winter aconite, but where did you get that gorgeous yellow Clivia??!! I fully expected to see the usual orange one, which I still love, but you’re talking to someone who shelled out $150 for a yellow peony two years ago….

    1. margaret says:

      Ailsa, welcome, and it was a gift years ago as a little baby. They are grown commercially in California by the incredible folks at San Marcos Growers , which has like three or four yellow cultivars. (That link is to one; look around their site for the others.) They will help you find a retailer near you to get one shipped. Hope to see you very soon again with news of your latest adoption. :)

      For those wondering what we are talking about, you should have signed up for the weekly AWTG newsletter….which had a snapshot of my just-open yellow Clivia (which I promise to blog about soon). The newsletter will hopefully have some new tidbit every week. Trying! You can sign up on any page, up near the top a few inches down in the left sidebar column.

  2. langhowellrooffltonc says:

    I won’t be mowing the wild onions and wire grass this spring and summer! My newest plan is to till them… again and again until they are unable to root or sprout. Then I’ll till in the decaying leaves from last fall… add compost from the town’s free supply… and then till mulch. If I see these monsters poking their ugly heads up, I’ll use the garden rake, maddock, or harvester to uproot them and preserve the bed.
    Friends are sceptical of my chances of eliminating these bad boys, but I’d rather till them while dreaming of the day when they are eradicated than to mow them week after week.
    Eventually I’ll have more sweeping edged beds and less turf. I’d much rather tend to the beds than mow weeds!
    We had a taste of spring last week – after the prettiest snow in years – and I was able to till for three days. …Rain today, but back to the wonderful tilling on Tuesday!

  3. susan says:

    I have not one bed to deal with yet, so this spring list will have to wait another year for me. Hoping you do not find any mice in the bird boxes, but if so one of the frogboys will surely have it for lunch.

  4. Melanie says:

    Margaret, My weekend was spent doing exactly what you’ve posted, cutting back the Epemediums, Hellebores and Sedum stalks. The grasses are next on my list but I take them slowly as every year I find a few praying mantis egg cases in them.

    Do you do anything with your cut back grasses? In ambitious years I shred the grasses and save them in bags to be used as a blond colored mulch. It remains to be seen if this year will be an ambitious one :-)


  5. Sue Godula says:

    We’re having a discussion at our home about when it’s too early to rake the snow mold. If we’re having 50 degree days, but occasional frost at night, is it too soon to rake/break apart snowmold? We live in a wooded wetlands, but have lawn around the house, in upstate NY. Thanks.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Sue. I think the general advice is to do it just as soon as you can: after a few dry, sunny days, so you won’t be tugging at sodden turf or mucking around with your feet, but not waiting any longer than that. I am eyeing a few patches here for targeting today, on the upper slopes above the house where the soil drains off faster than down below. So if the pretty surface is firm and drained, and you’re not going to uproot or dislodge things, go for it. I’m not going to rake with a vengeance as if dethatching yet…too moist for that….but I am going to break up snow mold as I am able, patch by patch, yes. See you soon again, I hope.

  6. cara says:

    Thank you, Margaret, for telling us what to do when. I was wondering about last year’s raggedy hellebore and epimedium foliage. Here in balmy zone 6 (or is Brooklyn zone 7? I’ve seen it both ways), the crocuses have exploded in the past three days, and the daffs and tulips are pushing up as we speak (and watch).

  7. Keith Alexander says:

    It always seems so brutal to hack off the ragged Hellebore and Epimedium foliage, but it really is worth it, isn’t it?

    In my experience, it aids in keeping crown rot, blackspot, and other nasties off the Hellebores, and the unfolding of the snaky new Epimedium flower spikes enjoy an unfettered stage.

  8. s says:

    Dear Margaret: Brilliant pictures of the clivia. This was a banner year for clivias at my home also. The problem is the roots are so terribly bound in the pot that it has been impossible to easily remove the plants for division so this beauty can be shared with family and friends. Any suggestions aside from breaking this enormous container?Thank you.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome S. Funny you should ask…I have a 20-plus-year-old orange Clivia that is so potbound and in such a huge pot already I cannot even lift it anymore. No way it’s coming out willingly. I am thinking of submerging it in a tub of water and trying to dislodge it when wet, but I am probably dreaming. Hope to see you again soon.

  9. Country Gardener says:

    Haven’t done a thing yet – ground still soggy – but must clean up the euphorbia soon and the hellebores too. Looking for my lone little winter aconites.

  10. Cathy Perry says:

    My beautiful Rose of Sharon has a critter that is eating the bark on the branches. Any idea of what would do this and why? I suspect squirrels but cannot catch them in the act. The same thing happened two years ago and the affected branches died.
    Worried in Virginia Beach,

    1. margaret says:

      For really local information, I’d find and contact my local cooperative extension (in VA that’s located at this link). I do not know of a specific pest that afflicts Rose of Sharon bark this way, hence my suggestion that you check locally asap. I have had bark borers in my crabapples and other fruit trees, but do not seem them listed as common in your shrub…so call the local extension in case there is something going on there that they can help you identify and resolve.

  11. whatzerkitty says:

    Since my house has nothing but a huge grass lawn, I don’t have any maintenance to do – yet. Since I’m in upstate NY, it’s still mud season, so I’m guessing it will be some time before whatever bulbs I planted start blooming, that is, if the squirrels didn’t get to them first.

  12. Layanee says:

    Margaret, Have you tried burning your grasses? Very satisfying and quick. You still have snow on the ground and they look like they are in a bed all their own. Looks like a match job to me.

  13. calissa says:

    Margaret, What do you do about rabbits in your garden? My husband and I are at odds at what to do. I really enjoy your website and your blogs, and I was hoping you could help.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Calissa. I do have rabbits; some years more, some years less, I suppose dependent on the coyote population ebb and flow here. In fact this winter, after each fresh snowfall, I kept hoping I wouldn’t see tracks (but always did).

      In years past, I would trap and relocate them with Have-a-Heart traps. Wire the trap open for a few days loaded with tasty foods, till you see evidence of rabbit activity inside. Then start setting the trap. Of course here in farming country, people just shoot them and also woodchucks (preferring not to have their crops eaten or holes created that livestock might step into). Pest-control companies can be paid a hefty fee to trap out rabbits as well (if they employ a wildlife-control certified staffer).

      If it’s an enclosed vegetable garden, fencing will have to be below-ground, too…many sources say just 6 inches but that sounds timid to me. (It would also have to be at least 2 feet high). There are repellents you can spray, as well (I never found this to be a practical solution with vegetable garden and such).

      One thing that has helped: my cat. He delights in hunting. I only wish he’d do a 100 percent effective job. I will speak to him about it.

  14. joyce says:

    Per your advice, I cleaned out the Bluebird box today. Whew!
    Some bird has been feathering a nest there. Must be a Messybird, because it used shredded kleenex, blue plastic grocery bags, and whatever trash was available, along with feathers, sticky bird spit, and twigs. Those building materials are also plastered in blobs all over the bark of the tree, and
    the extra shredded trash left all over the lawn. What a mess! (and I am very glad I evicted it!)

  15. calissa says:

    Thank you so much margaret, I think a fence will have to do. I don’t want to harm the rabbits. In fact my 4 year old son and I really enjoy looking for them, so much so that in years past we fed them, but when my husband found out we were feeding them from our vegetable garden, he was mad. We do have a dog, but he might just make the problem worse in the garden, doing his own digging. Thank you so much for you help!

  16. Another Margaret says:

    Hi Margaret,
    I have some euphorbia martinii that I planted last spring — do I need to cut these back? Do I cut back both the leaves and flower stems? All the way to the ground? They look somewhat raggedy but I don’t want to kill them by mistake, I’m quite new to gardening, just moved up the river from the city a year ago.
    Another Margaret

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Another Margaret (!). I cannot grow E. martinii (it’s Zone 7-hardy only, and I am in 5) but a nursery I respect a lot, Joy Creek, recommends cutting it back after bloom “to refresh.” See their thoughts. With my spring bloomers, I cut back after bloom; with my later ones, that look good all fall, I cut back in late winter or earliest spring.

  17. Siri says:

    First off, I was delighted to come across your blog as your book by the same name is one of my very favorites on the gardening bookshelf, one I refer back to each year for inspiration and ideas.
    Second, I stayed up way too late one night last week catching up on a good portion of your back posts, including this one.
    Third, this past Saturday we saw the first swallows arrive and start showing interest in the bird boxes when I realized that they hadn’t been cleaned out yet. Not EVER, since they were built by the boys and my husband a few years back.
    So, with a no-time-like-the-present-do-it-now-before-its-suddenly-next-year-and-still-isn’t-done attitude, I started immediately to cleaning them, lifting the lids and emptying them out. Coming to the second one, I took the whole box down from the tree on which it hung with a plan towards moving it to a post of the new garden fence.
    Propping it up against the step stool I’d been standing on, with the drill motor, “Ziiiiip, ziiiip, ziiiip, ziiip!” out went the four screws holding down the lid, in goes my (gloved) hand, and with it, out I comes something big and moving! “AHHHK!” went I. Dropped on the ground went it, and then up the tree it did scurry.
    Long story short, after zooming in with binoculars and camera and then our boys soon seeing it fly 60 feet to another tree (where I was working on cleaning the next box) and a few minutes with a mammal guidebook and an image search online, it turns out it was a Northern Flying Squirrel.
    We felt very lucky to have gotten to see this nocturnal creature we didn’t even know lived around us here in NW Montana, but I also felt remorse at having awakened it from its sleep in the midst of the day (or rather, its night), chasing it out of its cozy nest, but that quickly faded when the swallows again started investigating the newly placed box in the garden, even before I had a chance to take the ladder away.
    Anyways. I’m not usually much of a glove wearer, but am now so grateful to have read your reminder here, to have remembered it when needed, and to have followed your good advice!
    So! Thank you so very much, Margaret.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Siri. Another adventure of ‘Animal Planet’ in the garden, yes. I am familiar with this experience…and am shuddering at the thought, and also laughing. (Though flying squirrels are amazing creatures, to be sure…what a face, those eyes!) I appreciate your encouraging words, and that you came by to share your squirrel story, and hope we will see you very soon again.

  18. Kathy M says:

    We have a spring equinox ritual of burning the ornamental grasses. Always with a hose handy because I never know when a wind will come up. They burn hot and fast and its a great way to say goodbye to winter! Please don’t do this if there are buildings close by and follow your burn guidelines in your area. In that case a chain saw can be employed. Happy Spring

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