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.

Putting the Garden to Bed

In October, when the temperatures finally begin to cool, it’s a welcome sign that soon both gardens and gardeners will be able to settle in for a well-earned winter’s rest.

Those cozy evenings by the fireside will be here before we know it, but this month, there’s still plenty to be done to get the garden ready for its dormant period, and also to prepare for next year’s busy growing season!

BEGIN BY CLEANING UP THE BEDS
Start the winterizing process with a good cleanup! A proper cleanup this fall will improve overall plant health for the following year. Begin by removing any weeds. They’re sending their energy into their roots just like all the other plants at this time of year. You’ll want to get them out, so they don’t spread seed or dig deeper roots over the winter.

You’ll also want to clean up dropped fruit under fruit trees. Fruits and vegetables left out all winter will only rot, attract animals, and set seed. Remove all vegetable plants that are finished producing for the season. Dispose of plants which had insects or disease. You don’t want to put those in the compost pile. The same goes for weeds. Pull out all dead plant material. This helps keep your garden healthy through the winter and helps protect against pests.

CUTTING BACK & PRUNING
Many perennials and ornamental grasses add seasonal interest to the garden with attractive seed heads and plumes. Choose what you would like to remain intact and tidy up others by cutting tall stems back to the base foliage.

Cutting old and diseased foliage in the fall can help perennials jump right into new growth come spring. However, do not prune early-flowering shrubs such as lilac, forsythia, certain varieties of hydrangea, or rhododendron. These have already set next spring’s flower buds. Pruning now would remove next spring’s blooms! Spring bloomers like these can get a haircut right after they finish flowering next year.

AMEND THE SOIL — Autumn is a great time to amend your soil by working in organic matter. The addition of compost now will improve the soil next spring. Rototilling, or turning the soil over, will reduce insect and disease problems next year. Be sure to do this while the soil is dry.

ADD MULCH — Renewing all mulches in the autumn will yield several benefits. It helps maintain a consistent soil temperature, retains moisture, and prevents exposure of roots — which is a common cause of winter damage. Apply mulch around perennial plants — especially those that have been recently planted — as well as around trees and shrubs.

PREPARE FOR THOSE EARLY FROSTS — Keep an eye on those weather apps for nighttime temps dipping to or below freezing, and keep the frost blankets handy. A little protection for the first frost or two ensures your plants will continue to thrive in the warm autumn days that invariably follow a frost. If you run out of frost blankets, be sure to cover with a similar breathable material. Plastic is not recommended for frost protection because condensation beneath the plastic may lead to ice formation, which can damage the foliage.

TO HARVEST, OR NOT TO HARVEST — THAT IS THE QUESTION!

Though you may be able to extend the season by using floating row covers and frost blankets for the first autumn frost or two, generally it’s time to pull the warm-season veggie plants and put any harvests on the table for dinner. Here is a brief list of what to protect and when to call it a season:

Beans will not tolerate frost. Harvest and put them on the dinner menu.

Corn is frost sensitive and also should be harvested rather than covered.

Harvest all unprotected tomatoes and peppers. Unripened tomatoes can be placed in a paper bag or between sheets of newspaper to continue ripening indoors. Be sure to check on them often throughout their ripening process.

Cucumbers and summer squash should be harvested and thoroughly wiped dry before storing. Thin-skinned cucumbers do not store well and those should be eaten within a few days.

WHAT NOT TO
HARVEST … YET
Not all crops need to be hurriedly harvested before an autumn frost. Some cool-season vegetables are actually improved by the cold!

– Root crops like carrots and beets can remain in the ground until there’s a danger of the soil freezing. The soil acts as their protection from frost.
Celery and late cabbage can be harvested after you notice the frost has slowed their growth.
– Don’t harvest winter squash or pumpkins yet! Wait until their vines are frost-killed and their skins are hard to the thumbnail.
Kale and collards can be left in the garden until long after the first fall frost. Continue to harvest as needed until the foliage finally succumbs to the cold weather.
Potatoes should be harvested after the vines die down, so the potato skin has a chance to mature. This makes them less susceptible to bruises, cuts, and moisture loss during storage.
Lettuces and salad greens can be covered with frost cloth.
Onions should be harvested only after the frost has stopped their growth.

For a deeper dive into methods of storing vegetables for the winter, the Colorado State University Extension provides this handy fact sheet.

TO RAKE, OR NOT TO RAKE? Rake! Although some fallen leaves can be mulched back into the soil with your lawn mower, most turf grasses will not tolerate a thick mat of leaves over the winter. Soggy mats of leaves on turf can lead to disease problems. You can add dry leaves to the compost pile, or shred & dig directly into your vegetable beds to improve the soil over the winter.

Aerate your lawn to loosen compacted soil, and apply Green Thumb Winterizer in mid-October. Your lawn will be nice and green in the spring. For the final mowing of the season, leave your grass at a height of 2½”.

Bindweed, dandelion, and other perennial weeds will be moving food reserves down to their roots now. This is a great time to use Weed Free Zone to kill these invasive weeds, roots and all.

Before you drain your sprinkler system for the year, give your lawn a good watering. Continue to hand water as long as temperatures remain above freezing.

Put a trip to Echter’s on your autumn to-do list! We’ll help you tackle putting your garden to bed. Then you can feel free to settle back and enjoy the season knowing that your garden is well-prepared for a long winter’s nap!

Extending the Harvest

With the summer harvest season in full swing, the last thing you may be thinking about is planting more vegetables. But why give up popping out the back door to harvest fresh veggies just because summer is drawing to a close? Smart gardeners know that late summer is the ideal time to plant another round of crisp, fresh, cool-season veggies to extend the harvest just a little longer.

Late summer is prime time for sowing seeds! The soil is still warm from summer temperatures, so seeds germinate more easily. By the time seedlings are up and growing, the air temperatures will have begun to cool as autumn weather settles in. Warm soil & cool air —you couldn’t ask for better growing conditions!

Autumn gardening offers a few advantages over spring & summer as well. Spring planting problems (like bolting because of heat and pesky garden pests) aren’t an issue in the autumn. Even though frost is a necessary consideration, some vegetables are even sweeter after a light frost. So if you’re thinking of squeezing in a little more gardening before the season truly ends, grab your favorite cool-season veggie seeds and a calendar, and get sowing!

Successfully extending the vegetable season depends on a little careful planning. Begin by learning the average date of the first autumn frost in your area. Once you know this, consult the seed packet to find the days to maturity for each particular crop. For the peas in the seed packet to the left, it will be 62-75 days from sowing seed to mature peas. Armed with this information, count backwards on the calendar to find the date you should sow the seed. Simple!

TIP: You may want to pad your planting estimates with an extra couple of weeks. As the days grow shorter, there will be less sunlight for growing, and daytime temperatures will also be cooler. What may have grown quickly in the warming soil and lengthening days of spring, may take just a little longer in the autumn.

As you remove fading summer vegetable crops from your garden, it’s easy to plug in a frost-tolerant, cool-season crop in its place. Begin by adding a soil amendment to replenish essential micro-organisms, provide nutrients, and improve the overall condition of the soil. It takes healthy soil to grow healthy plants!

Lastly, be prepared for those early autumn frosts! Though there are a number of frost-tolerant crops that will laugh at a light frost, sometimes Mother Nature does something unexpected! It’s wise to be ready to give your plants an extra bit of help if necessary. Make sure to keep frost cloths & blankets, fleece tunnels & jackets, etc. at hand and ready to go on short notice. Keep a close eye on weather forecasts and forecasted overnight low temps. Protect your plants, and they’ll be able to keep right on growing in the Indian Summer that inevitably follows a first frost event.

Now … what to plant and when? With an average frost date of mid-October for our Zone 5 Colorado gardens, try planting these popular cool-weather loving crops in late August to early September. They are reliable favorites.

Go ahead and enjoy another round of leafy greens like spinach, chard, watercress, kale, and lettuces. Peas are another favorite for the autumn garden.

Root vegetables like carrots, beets, turnips, and radishes are popular choices that also do well in cool-season Colorado gardens.

Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and kohlrabi will enjoy sunny days and cool nights in the autumn garden. They can all tolerate a light frost.

Autumn gardening can be rewarding and fun as long as you’re knowledgeable and prepared. Why not get just one more vegetable harvest in before winter arrives? Those late-season veggies will taste mighty good in soups & stews come January!