Early Spring Garden Tips

“I love spring anywhere,
but if I could choose,
I would always greet it
in a garden.”

~ Ruth Stout ~

We all look forward to the spring season with delight each year. The promise of warmer weather, more daylight, and all of those beautiful spring flowers is a welcome reward after a long winter of grey days, icy air, and shoveling snow. Soon trees and shrubs will be budding, bulbs and perennials will begin emerging from the ground, and our gardens will slowly come back to life once again. Though it’s still too early to plant, there’s plenty to do in the garden. Grab your garden tools, and let’s get started!

CARE OF GARDEN TOOLS — Speaking of garden tools, early spring is a good time to make sure they’re ready for the upcoming season. Check your gardening supplies so that you’ll have what you need in the spring. Gives your garden gloves a good wash and dry, or replace worn ones. Take time to clean all tools thoroughly, removing any residual soil, then inspect for damage or rust. If you do find rust, give those areas a good scrub with steel wool. It will be a long season of work for your garden tools, so it’s a good idea to have them sharpened at the beginning of the season. Echter’s can do that for you! Simply bring in your tools (and lawn mower blades), and for a nominal fee, we’ll sharpen them. If you need to replace or add to your garden tool arsenal, stop by. We’re well stocked with all kinds of garden implements — especially at the beginning of the year.

EARLY SPRING CLEANUP — Winter can be hard on your garden! Take a walk around your garden to assess any winter damage. Remove debris leftover from winter storms, and tidy up the garden beds and boxes. Clean up any dead annual or vegetable plants that remained over the winter. Trim back the tattered foliage or old bloom stalks of perennials to encourage new growth to come in. Cut back ornamental grasses as low as possible, so the old foliage won’t detract from the new growth. Don’t be in too big a hurry to remove mulches though. There are plenty of beneficial pollinators overwinter in gardens by hibernating in dried leaf piles and last-season’s perennial plants, and March can still be one of our snowiest months!

PREPARE YOUR SOIL — Now is a good time to add organic amendments like compost and peat moss. Rototill or spade into your garden soil to a depth of 6 inches.

PLAN YOUR VEGETABLE GARDEN — A great vegetable garden starts with a great plan! Make a list of what you’d like to grow, how much area you have, and how many of each plant you’d like to grow. Check seed packets for plants’ mature sizes, sunlight and watering needs, and the yield of the veggies when planning. Then have fun mapping out and designing your planting areas!

IT’S TIME TO PRUNE — If you didn’t get to it in February, you can still do pruning of deciduous trees and shrubs in March. Some exceptions would be birch, maple, walnut, and elm. These should be pruned in mid-summer. In early spring, you can still easily see the branching structure of trees and shrubs before the leaves start coming in. Begin by removing the three Ds: anything dead, damaged, or diseased. Then move on to any crossed branches (branches that rub against another), water sprouts (branches that grow straight up from the branch), and suckers (branches that spring up from the base of the tree or shrub). Generally speaking, remove young branches that are growing inwards towards the center of the tree as opposed to outwards. Use a pole pruner to reach branches up to about 15 ft. off the ground. Pruning paints and wound dressings are not recommended on the pruning cuts. If you missed it, here’s a deeper dive into late-winter pruning.

GET STARTED ON SOME EARLY LAWN CARE — As in other areas of the garden, begin by checking for any problems that may have developed. Once the snow has melted off your lawn, check the turf in shaded areas for snow mold, a fungus that is white to pink in color and grows on the surface of the grass blades. If you see evidence of snow mold, lightly rake the affected areas and dispose of the debris. Any remaining mold should dissipate on its own after that.

LAWNS SHOULD BE CORE AERATED once or twice each year. That’s done by poking holes in the ground and pulling out plugs. This reduces soil compaction and helps control thatch in lawns while also helping water and fertilizer move into the root zone. Schedule your lawn for an aeration in March, and prepare by marking your sprinkler heads to avoid having them damaged. Water the lawn the day before aerating, so it will be softer and easier to pull plugs. Then water again after aeration to help the lawn recover. Leaving the plugs on the surface will help break down the thatch that has accumulated.

GET A HEAD START ON WEEDS — You can begin to get ahead of weeds by choosing a lawn fertilizer with a pre-emergent as your first feeding of the year. This will prevent annual weed seeds from germinating, and give your lawn a chance to thicken up and discourage weeds on its own. It’s best to apply these after aerating the lawn. This is important because aerating after a pre-emergent will greatly reduce its effectiveness!

OVERSEEDING — As the weather begins to reliably warm up in March, you can begin overseeding thin areas of lawn. Rake areas to be seeded to expose and loosen the soil, then apply a thin layer of Nature’s Yield Compost . Use a high-quality seed blended for your conditions. Echter’s has many different blends to choose from. A hand spreader will help to apply the seed evenly. After seeding, be sure to keep the surface area moist until the seed is well germinated.

PLANT COLD-HARDY CROPS — While it’s too early to plant tender, warm-season plants, it is time to plant some early cold-hardy crops. Things like onion sets, bare-root strawberries, asparagus roots and seed potatoes can be sowed directly into the vegetable garden in March. Be sure to keep a frost blanket handy for any late-season frosts, just to be on the safe side.

START SEEDS INDOORS — Now is the time to start broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kohlrabi, alyssum, lobelia, pansy, and geranium seeds inside for planting out later in the spring. Start tomatoes and peppers inside now, then they’ll be ready to transfer to the garden beds in late May.

PREPARE BIRDHOUSES FOR THE BUSY SPRING SEASON — Returning birds will be looking for real estate soon! In preparation for the new arrivals, clean out and sterilize last year’s birdhouses, or put up new ones. Make sure any older birdhouses are still firmly mounted as well. It’s a good time to perform bird feeder maintenance too. Clean out all feeders and fill with fresh seed. You may also want to consider creating a pile of nesting materials to make your yard extra inviting for this year’s visitors.

Late Winter Pruning Checklist

Pruning allows what’s left to grow into something beautiful.

Late winter is an ideal time for pruning deciduous trees and shrubs. There’s no foliage growth yet, so the shape of the tree is easy to see — and so are any problems that need to be corrected through pruning! Pruning doesn’t need to be an overwhelming chore though. If you follow a simple checklist each year, you can keep up with this winter gardening task and keep your trees healthy. Gather your pruning tools, and let’s get started!

The three Ds: Dead, Diseased, Damaged

Begin your pruning by removing any of the three Ds — anything that’s diseased, damaged, or dead. Broken and damaged branches are more than just unsightly. They open the tree up to pests and disease. Prune back to at least 6 inches below the diseased area into healthy wood.

Removing dead branches is an obvious pruning task, but how do you know if a branch is dead or just dormant? Scrape away a small part of the bark, If it’s alive, it will be green underneath. If it’s dead, it will be hard and brown inside. You can also try the “bend test.” Bend the branch gently. A live branch will bend, but a dead branch will snap.

Water Sprouts and Suckers

Next, look for suckers and water sprouts and remove them. Water sprouts are newer branches growing straight upwards through the tree, whereas suckers are new growth springing up around the base of the tree.

Water sprouts are caused by heavy pruning in previous years, or by stress to the tree. To prune them away, cut at the base making sure to preserve the branch collar. The branch collar is a swollen area at the base of the water sprout. Prune to about 1/2″ away from the branch collar.

Crossing & Competing Branches

Look for branches that are not growing out from the center of the tree. These may be branches that, like water sprouts, grow straight upwards through the canopy. Also look for branches that are growing inwards towards the trunk. These branches are called competing branches because they compete for space, sun, and nutrients with healthier branches. Cut these away, so what remains are only healthy branches that are growing outwards from the main trunk.

Crossing branches are branches that grow across another. If left in place, these can rub against another branch causing damage. Removing a crossing branch ensures you won’t have to removed a damaged branch next winter!

The overall shape of the tree should be clearly visible now. Step back and look at the overall structure of the tree. If it still seems a little overcrowded in spots, prune until the shape is more even. You might want to raise the canopy a bit — that is, prune away any branches that are just too low. If there are branches that are in the way each time you mow in the summer, go ahead and remove them.

Renew an Overgrown Shrub

For shrubs that may have become overgrown and leggy through the years, a late-winter pruning can be done to improve shape, vigor, and blooming. Prune away the oldest and weakest canes at or near the ground level. This will improve the overall height & shape and should result in more foliage and better flower quality.

NOTE: It’s crucial to do a little homework before you begin pruning. If you prune spring-blooming shrubs (think lilac, forsythia, etc.) in late winter, you’ll be cutting off this spring’s blooms! Some shrubs (like hydrangea macrophylla) bloom on “old wood,” which means last year’s new canes. If you prune out the old wood on these shrubs, you’ll cut off the canes that would be blooming this year! So, a little judicious research will ensure you’re pruning the right shrub at the right time of year.

That’s it! If you keep up with this pruning checklist each winter, it should never become an overwhelming chore, and your trees and shrubs will be much healthier when springtime arrives.

Can I still plant?

 

Yes! You can plant.

‘Is it too late to plant?’ This is a question we hear a lot this time of year.

The answer: You can plant anytime during the growing season!While planting in the heat of summer poses some challenges, container grown perennials and shrubs are always happy to get their roots into the ground.

The key is water.  High temperatures and intense sunlight cause plants to make strong demands on their root system to keep up with transpiration (think of the plant ‘sweating’ to cool off). When the roots have to work hardto keep the plant hydrated, it can’t use that energy for growing roots. Even worse, if the roots can’t find the water it needs the plant suffers.

planting-tree-6l

For successful summer planting, makesure your plants are well hydrated before you transplant and plant in the cooler hours of early morning or evening.  This reduces the stress of transplanting.  Make your hole the same depth and twice as wide as the container your plant came in.  Larger plants, shrubs and trees will benefit from pre-moistening the soil.  Fill the hole with water and let is seep into the ground completely. While the water is seeping into the surrounding soil, mix 1 part compost with 2 parts of the soil you removed from the hole. Remove your plant from its container and gently loosen the roots. Place the plant with its roots spread out. For perennials, annuals and shrubs, match the same soil level as the container grown plant.  Avoid burying it any deeper.  For trees, CSU recommends planting with the root ball elevated from the ground, as trees will settle over time.  For 1” caliper trees and smaller, plant 1” above the grade.  For 2”-4” caliper trees, plant 2” above the soil grade. Add some of the soil/compost mixture if it sits too low. Fill the hole with the remaining soil/compost mixture while gently tamping down to stabilize the plant.  Avoid packing the soil tightly.  Our goal is to eliminate air pockets while still making it possible for roots and water to penetrate the soil.  Top with compost or mulch to retain moisture and water deeply one more time with a root simulator. Planting_Shrub

Check your plants both morning and evening if it’s been hot and dry, for several weeks.  Moisture meters are handy tools to keep an eye on the moisture level surrounding the roots of your new transplants.  For larger trees and shrubs, be sure to check in several places around the root ball, as they can dry unevenly while they establish.  The long handle of a wooden spoon or a sharpened pencil can be used as a substitute if you prefer not to stick your fingers in the soil. Exposed wood absorbs moisture.  Poke your utensil into the soil a few inches and pull it up.  Feel the end of the utensil.   If it is dry, then water.  For plants with smaller root masses, check the soil about 2 inches below the surface for moisture. For larger plants like trees, check 3 to 4 inches into the soil.  If dry, give it a deep soaking.  Once your plants are settled and appear to be growing well, you can begin to reduce your watering frequency depending on your plants particular needs.  Drought tolerant trees, shrubs and perennials will still need a deep soaking at least once per week during the hottest part of their first summer.

Remember to winter water trees, shrubs and perennials, too.  Our climate is arid and young plants are the most susceptible during this time. Even established trees will suffer.  If we don’t have a decent snowfall for 3-4 weeks then watering will be necessary to maintain your plants health.  Failure to winter water is the most common reason for plant loss each spring.

The key is water. High temperatures and intense sunlight cause plants to make strong demands on their root system to keep up with transpiration (think of the plant ‘sweating’ to cool off). When the roots have to work hard to keep the plant hydrated, it can’t use that energy for growing roots. Even worse, if the roots can’t find the water it needs the plant suffers.

For successful summer planting, make sure your plants are well hydrated before you transplant and plant in the cooler hours of early morning or evening. This reduces the stress of transplanting. Make your hole the same depth and twice as wide as the container your plant came in. Larger plants, shrubs and trees will benefit from pre-moistening the soil. Fill the hole with water and let is seep into the ground completely. While the water is seeping into the surrounding soil, mix 1 part compost with 2 parts of the soil you removed from the hole. Remove your plant from its container and gently loosen the roots. Place the plant with its roots spread out. For perennials, annuals and shrubs, match the same soil level as the container grown plant.  Avoid burying it any deeper. For trees, CSU recommends planting with the root ball elevated from the ground, as trees will settle over time. For 1” caliper trees and smaller, plant 1” above the grade. For 2”-4” caliper trees, plant 2” above the soil grade.   Add some of the soil/compost mixture if it sits too low.  Fill the hole with the remaining soil/compost mixture while gently tamping down to stabilize the plant. Avoid packing the soil tightly. Our goal is to eliminate air pockets while still making it possible for roots and water to penetrate the soil. Top with compost or mulch to retain moisture, but keep the mulch at least 3″ away from tree trunks.  Water deeply one more time with a root simulator.   There is no need to fertilizer trees and shrubs their first season.  

Check your plants both morning and evening if it’s been hot and dry, for several weeks. Moisture meters are handy tools to keep an eye on the moisture level surrounding the roots of your new transplants. For larger trees and shrubs, be sure to check in several places around the root ball, as they can dry unevenly while they establish. The long handle of a wooden spoon or a sharpened pencil can be used as a substitute if you prefer not to stick your fingers in the soil. Exposed wood absorbs moisture. Poke your utensil into the soil a few inches and pull it up. Feel the end of the utensil. If it is dry, then water. For plants with smaller root masses, check the soil about 2 inches below the surface for moisture. For larger plants like trees, check 3 to 4 inches into the soil. If dry, give it a deep soaking. Once your plants are settled and appear to be growing well, you can begin to reduce your watering frequency depending on your plants particular needs. Drought tolerant trees, shrubs and perennials will still need a deep soaking at least once per week during the hottest part of their first summer.  Stake trees while they establish.

tree with stakes

Remember to winter water trees, shrubs and perennials, too. Our climate is arid and young plants are the most susceptible during this time. Even established trees will suffer. If we don’t have a decent snowfall for 3-4 weeks then watering will be necessary to maintain your plants health. Failure to winter water is the most common reason for plant loss each spring.

We also suggest using tree wrap on young trees to prevent the trunks from splitting during winter.  The usual rule of thumb is to wrap at Thanksgiving and remove the wrap at Easter.

The Beautiful Leaf

This time of year we are all so enamored by flowers that it’s easy to overlook the value of colorful foliage in the garden.   Colored leaves come in many hues, from shades of purple-reds to bright chartreuse greens to shades of orange.  I’m not talking about fall color, here.  These colorful leaves can be enjoyed all summer in their bright hues.  Colorful foliage makes container gardens stand out from the crowd.  In perennial beds, colorful leaves can provide beauty when plants are between bloom cycles.  Colorful trees and shrubs stand out against the customary hues of green, becoming focal points of the garden.

Under the Sea Coleus "Bonefish" is a striking plant with bright chartreuse, serrated edges that add both texture and color.
Under the Sea Coleus “Bonefish” is a striking plant with bright chartreuse, serrated edges that add both texture and color.

Under the Sea Coleus, from Hort Couture Plants,  is a favorite for container gardens.  They come in several color combinations and sizes from tall to small.  Each is unique in the world of coleus.  All perform well in sun to part sun, in our Colorado climate.  Small leaved varieties sail through the heat of summer.  Large leaved cultivars, like “King Crab”  will benefit from some shade in the afternoon.

Most people don’t think about trees being colorful unless it’s fall.  There are, however, quite a few that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Best grown in a semi shaded area, protected from arid winter winds.
Japanese Maple “Shiraz”. Best grown in a semi shaded area, protected from arid winter winds.

Royal Red Norway Maple
Royal Red Norway Maples have large,richly colored, dark burgundy/mahogany leaves. These trees can reach 35′-40′ tall, providing ample shade. They tolerate pollution well, making them a great choice where there is high traffic.

Tricolor Beech have a decidedly pyramid shape while young. Like many of us, they round out a bit with age. They reach 25'-35' tall. They will do best in an eastern or north eastern exposure, in a partial sun area.
Tricolor Beech have a decidedly pyramid shape while young. Like many of us, they round out a bit with age. They reach 25′-35′ tall. They will do best in an eastern or north eastern exposure, in a partial sun area.

If landscapes had a sense of fashion, then dark leaved plants would be the “little black dress”.    They are always in style and every garden should have at least one in the wardrobe.   Japanese maples provide interesting structural form and many have colorful leaves that will turn a shady area into a mystical garden.

Heuchera Blackberry Ice is a staff favorite. The dark berry colored leaves dress up shady borders. Try using them in shady container gardens too.
Heuchera Blackberry Ice is a staff favorite. The dark berry colored leaves dress up shady borders. Try using them in shady container gardens too.

Heuchera is the coleus of perennials.  Every year, more new cultivars are introduced.  Most are relatively compact, making it easy to add them to existing garden beds or container gardens.

Heuchera Amber Lady shows off it's luscious leaves. Grow them in shady gardens.
Heuchera Amber Lady shows off it’s luscious leaves. Grow them in shady gardens.

Barberry are among the most versatile, sun-loving shrubs for Colorado.  They come in multiple sizes and shapes.  Most have colorful leaves, ranging from bright red/orange to lemony greens.  Tiny or tall, there’s so many shapes and sizes, it’s difficult to choose.   Their thorns make them less suitable for areas where people may brush against them.  That said, those thorn make them a great choice as a deterrent when planted around a home’s foundation, under windows.  Their berries provide food for birds and their density provides shelter.

Barberry Orange Rocket is a columnar shrub, ideal for creating a hedge in a narrow space. They can also be used as a centerpiece in container gardens. Just be sure to plant it in the ground in fall.
Barberry Orange Rocket is a columnar shrub, ideal for creating a hedge in a narrow space. They can also be used as a centerpiece in container gardens. Just be sure to plant it in the ground in fall.

Barberry comes in many colors and sizes. They dress up sunny garden areas and can be used in borders, as hedges or as accent shrubs. Few shrubs are as versatile.
Barberry comes in many colors and sizes. They dress up sunny garden areas and can be used in borders, as hedges or as accent shrubs. Few shrubs are as versatile.

Evergreens, in both tree and shrub forms, are hardy additions to Colorado gardens.  They thrive in full sun and manage to look fabulous despite our arid late summer conditions.  They take wild temperature swings in stride, making them ideal in a climate with more than 40 freeze/thaw cycles each year.

Juniper "Sea of Gold" is a dramatic shrub that provides garden color year round.
Juniper “Sea of Gold” is a dramatic shrub that provides garden color year round.

Say the word “juniper” and some people  cringe, thinking of prickly shrubs filled with spider webs.  Today’s junipers come in many textures and sizes.  Some are great for use as low growing shrubs.  Others, like the one pictured, are drama queens, with soft needles and dense branching.

There’s more than one way to enjoy a colorful garden.  So try some colorful leaves in your garden and see how dramatically they change the look of your landscape.