Waking up the Garden in Spring


Although a thorough fall clean-up will make a gardener’s work-load lighter in spring, there are many reasons we might find ourselves in quite the opposite situation. Personally, I have always enjoyed the visual delights of a winter garden. I like seeing the plumes of ornamental grass covered in ice and snow, and I love watching birds flock to blackening seed pods.  And while I will protect my tender plants with a blanket of mulch, carefully putting my valuable perennials to ‘sleep’, I am more inclined to postpone certain gardening task until springtime.

All gardens, even the most meticulously trimmed and tucked, will need special attention in spring with a ‘wake-up’ in order to look great and perform well through out the coming seasons.

I like to begin my garden year in March.  As soon as my mailbox begins to fill up with gardening catalogues, I know it is time to start rummaging around the tool shed. In early March, before the spring thaw in Vermont, I begin to take stock of my tools.  I examine my garden spades, shovels, rakes and hand-tools for wear and tear and I repair what I can. Before the gardening frenzy begins, I like to sand and oil wooden handles, tighten or replace missing screws, and sharpen and oil metal blades. Sometimes, I will find tools in need of cleaning, or things beyond repair and needing to be replaced.  As things wear out, I try to replace them with the best quality I can afford.  Hand forged tools, (DeWit is a fine company), are the best choice for a serious gardener.  With proper care and protection, well made tools will last for generations.  I always give my pruners and shears a thorough cleaning with rubbing alcohol and a first sharpening with an oiled whetstone at this time of year. I have owned the same pair of Felco bypass pruners for years, and they have served me , and my clients, very well.  A thorough inventory of the shed includes a check of tarps, hoses, nozzles, wheel barrows, power tools and mowers. Getting things ready now will save me precious time later.

Once I have my tool shed ready to go for spring, I start thinking about my pots, potting soil and soil amendments.  Usually I get a jump on the season by buying some fish emulsion, dried blood, and anything else I might be needing before the garden centers run out. Meanwhile,  I have a look at my seeds and their expiration dates, and I begin to fantasize about my annual displays. I try to empty my decorative clay pots in fall, and store them upside down in the cellar for winter, (with the exception of the heavy frost-proof pots I tend to leave out on the terrace). Come spring, I examine those pots and give them a thorough cleaning with soapy water and a bit of hydrogen peroxide or bleach before refilling them with fresh potting soil.

Around this time, the snow is beginning to recede and I enjoy taking walks around the perimeter of my sleeping gardens.  It is hard to resist the urge to pull mulch and prod plants before temperatures moderate.  But I have come to expect the bitter cold snaps and late snows following those flirtatiously warm spells in early April.  So until I hear the Hermit thrush singing sometime around the second week of April, I try to keep the mulch on my tender plants.  It is also wise to avoid compacting valuable loam by making it a rule to never walk around in wet gardens.  I try to stick to the stone paths and walkways I have made, leaning my body in toward the beautiful, dark soil to see what is happening.  For a lover of gardens, it is always such a pleasure to smell the damp earth in spring.

As I walk around I note my garden’s structure and examine trees and shrubs.  I may finish up some last-minute tree pruning on varieties not at risk for bleeding sap, (avoid early spring pruning of maple or birch, for example).  I will look for rodent damage, such as gnawed bark and girdled branches and prune those jagged edges clean.

Once my soil has dried out, and has the consistency of crumbed chocolate cake in my hands, I pull out my shears and begin to cut back my over-wintered perennials to within a few inches of the ground.  Some gardeners like to use a string trimmer, but I prefer hand shears.  I would rather not risk nicking a fine Japanese maple, or favorite viburnum, and so I stick to the manual labor.  Cutting back my garden makes the second phase of spring-clean up easier.  At this early stage, I use a wide plastic garden rake to whisk away the debris left over from last year, allowing the sunlight to warm and dry my garden beds and reveal the new growth emerging from the soil.  I clear away the dried remnants and rotting debris completely, using a hopping motion with the rake to pile it up and remove it from the garden on a tarp. I never add this material to my compost heap as it may contain fungus or insects, but instead I choose to burn these left overs.

I like to enjoy the pleasure of early spring bulbs, and I take photographs to remind me of my plantings later in fall.  By then I have usually forgotten where things were located, and I like having these visual notes to guide me in my plans.  As things continue to warm up and plants emerge further, I switch to an adjustable metal rake for continued clean-up.  This tool gives me a bit more control between perennials and shrubs, and helps me to avoid ripping the heads of my fragrant narcissus.  A well cleaned and tidy garden enhances my design, and it is the first step in successful organic gardening.  Now I may begin to add well rotted compost and mulch to my beds, and to test my soil for pH, nitrogen, phosphorus and potash. Usually, I amend the soil in my gardens in fall, but I check it in spring too and make adjustments as necessary.  I like my soil just slightly more acidic than neutral, as most perennials and shrubs tend to prefer.  I use organic methods, and I improve my soil with compost, peat, manure, dried blood or fish emulsion, rock phosphate and green sand when necessary.  I also add a bit of green sand to my compost, as it will keep my potassium levels steady and condition my soil.

As I walk around primping and pruning and edging in mid to late April, I take note of what has died off, and what needs dividing.  I do some early weeding as those undesirable plants emerge, to get a jump on their aggressive ways. Soon I pull out my fork and spade and set to work on the task of removing the weak, dividing the over-zealous, and replacing the gone.  I have a realistic look at my plants as they awaken, and I make a list of what I might need to buy on my first shopping trip to Walker Farm and my other local sources for healthy annual, perennial and woody plants.

Now that I have spent many long hours and days awakening my garden for spring, I try to reward myself with trips to the greenhouse and nursery, checking out what is new, and planning for my annual planting splurge.  It always feels so good to get outside in the morning with my cup of coffee and my sleepy pets, enjoying our morning-walks in spring.  Everything, even the earth itself, seems suddenly awake and full of life.


This article is a summary of a detailed seminar presented at

Walker Farm - Dummerston, Vermont

Article and photos copyright 2009 Michaela / The Gardener’s Eden