In most parts of the country, the vagaries of April weather are enough to drive us crazy. Beautiful spring-like days make us shed some clothes, only to put them back on when the next cold breeze moves in. Spring is coming, but that arrival can seem tantalizingly slow for herb gardeners eager to get outside and get their hands dirty. Too early to plant where you are? Don’t worry; there are plenty of other gardening jobs to keep you busy, chores that feed our anticipation of the arrival of the real spring.
The majority of vegetable gardeners, who grow most plants as annuals, do garden cleanup in the fall, pulling out the spent plants, cutting back unruly growth and putting the garden to bed for the winter in a tidy, buttoned-up fashion. I’m not one of those. For me, that’s an early-spring job.
Because I prefer to mix my vegetables and annuals with perennial herbs and shrubs, when autumn comes I leave the sprawling plants (after deadheading overly rambunctious plants so they don’t reseed where I don’t want them), the debris, leaves, annuals that have produced their flowers and died and mulch—I leave all that where it is so it will give the garden some protection from the cycle of freezing, thawing and heaving that characterizes winter in cold climates. Winter makes a frozen tableau of the sprawling late-summer garden.
Herbs are enticing at every stage of their lives.
Spring garden cleanup and getting ready for the gardening season are joyful tasks, and the garden is a place of discovery. On a mild day, put your pruning tool in your pocket and position a wheelbarrow in a handy place to catch the debris you’re clearing out. Then get down on your knees and get busy, gathering leaves, weeds and old mulch, cutting back withered perennial stems so the newly emerging green of spring has a clear path and pulling out any new seedlings that sprouted in spots where they’re not welcome. Clearing out and tidying up lets you see the space, remember the look of last summer’s garden and think about changes you want to make. You’ll get to enjoy the sights and scents of the perennial herbs that emerge early, such as chives and chervil.
The next step is to raid the compost pile, or haul out the store-bought bags of compost or aged manure. You’ll spread this wealth throughout the garden, topdressing the soil to condition it and give it a nutrient boost your emerging herbs will appreciate. After spreading the compost, take a hoe and work the surface, breaking up the crusty soil and getting the compost or manure into the top few inches, taking care not to disturb the herbs and bulbs that are planted below. The earthworms will do the rest.
You’ll find this to be satisfying work. Over the years of a garden’s life, as you work the soil and amend it, it becomes more friable and easier to handle. Heavy clays lighten up and drain better, while sandy soils take on substance and improve in their retention of water and nutrients. Good soil is the best start you can give any garden, and depending on what you start with, this can take some time. Steady improvement is the goal.
Still waiting for spring to get here? Take a look at your tools, and if you didn’t clean them and take care of them in the fall, do it now. Good tools are an investment a gardener should protect. Use a stiff wire brush to get rid of dirt, residue and any specks of rust. Organize your tool storage space if it needs it. This will make you feel righteous.
Do you know which hardiness zone you’re in? When you’re buying or ordering new plants, knowing your hardiness zone will help you decide if those plants are likely to survive in your climate. Hardiness zone information, generated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is based on annual average minimum temperatures and is available in many places, including online at www.usna.usda.gov/Hardzone/ushzmap.
Another useful piece of information to have in your pocket is the average frost-free date in your area, which is the all-clear signal to start planting. If you don’t know, find out with a quick call to your county extension office.
Kathleen Halloran, former editor of The Herb Companion, is a freelance writer focusing on gardening and health.