The Garden Beckons: Pruning to Soil Preparation

Get ready for spring!


The cold days of February and March are a good time to clean and sharpen your garden tools before the gardening season really gets busy.

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This time of year, when it’s no longer winter but not quite spring, I’m eager to be outside. I long for the sun’s heat on my sweatered back, the smell of moist soil, the sight of pink earthworms. I treasure each blossom of early spring—disproportionately from other times of the year, considering the drifts of spicy pinks and rosy creeping thyme blossoms that will come later. I even celebrate the first yellow dandelion in the lawn, though perhaps I’ll feel less charitable toward its multitude of children later in the summer.

Now is when I give “conceptual garden tours”. Waving my arms about broadly, I stop to point out the comfrey that will soon be growing in just that spot, or the horseradish, currently dormant, or the pineapple mint that will soon boast shoots of soft green-and-white leaves. I wonder if the plants look better in my mind’s eye than in real life. Of course, not everyone can see them.

A few herbs are clearly visible, however. The frost-felled parsley has recovered and is a cheerful emerald green behind the yellow crocuses, white snowdrops, and sky blue pansies. Yellow tassels of coltsfoot on naked scapes are up long before the leaves appear, giving rise to another common name, sons-before-fathers. Evergray lavender leaves shine silver in the sun.

The interval between winter and spring is the ideal time to do some outside spring cleaning and get a fresh start on the new gardening year. Keeping a gardening notebook has been a big help in reminding me what needs to be done. Each year, I record my successes and failures, make resolutions, and note ideas I glean from spring flower shows for plant placement and new plants and combinations to try. Sketches of my beds remind me of the location of dormant plants.

Use your imagination and walk with me through my garden as I go about my spring chores.

Prune away

Now is the time to prune almost everything. In cooler climates, herbs such as catnip, horehound, winter savory, lemon balm, and oregano are more likely to survive a winter if the old stalks are left uncut in the fall; by now, they’re ready for a cleanup. Here in Atlanta, sweet marjoram, pineapple sage, velvet sage (Salvia leucantha), Mexican mint marigold (Tagetes lucida), and scented geraniums also overwinter better if left uncut. With newly sharpened clippers, I cut the old, dead stems down to the ground, making way for the new shoots that will emerge from the crown. I lift the evergreen boughs from borderline-hardy herbs such as prostrate rosemary. Snipping off winter-burned tips of sage, rosemary, and other herbs encourages new growth and a bushier shape. I take the trimmings to the compost pile or add them to a final fragrant blaze in the fireplace.

Herbal shrubs, such as bayberry, barberry, and pussy willow, can be pruned at any time, but I usually wait until just after flowering to prune spring-flowering kinds with showy blossoms, such as witch hazel and flowering quince. I do rejuvenation pruning of any overgrown shrubs in February or March, however, removing a few older, thicker trunks at ground level to allow younger stems more room, light, and air circulation. Long-handled ratchet loppers with sharpened blades enable me to easily remove stems up to 2 1/2 inches in ­diameter.

I see that the chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) has overgrown its site, casting too much shade over desirable garden space. It must come out. Several heavy trunks 4 or 5 inches in diameter are easy to cut with a tree saw. After I amputate some roots, I find I can pry the rest out of the soft, moist ground with little trouble. I take this opportunity to work more organic matter into the soil before installing a new collection of lavenders or salvias in my reclaimed space.

Early last fall, I planted several dwarf apple trees along a low split-rail fence surrounding my herb plots. They are now ready to be espaliered. I chose trees with low branches that conform well to this harsh treatment. Now I prune each one to its lowest branch and leader and wire these into a Y stretching along the fence. Before summer, and before the new growth gets woody, I’ll reshape the Y into a T. Throughout the season, I’ll prune off any upward whips. Flowers and fruit will appear in later years along the tree’s horizontal axis.

The interval between winter and spring is the ideal time to do some outside spring cleaning and get a fresh start on the new gardening year. 

Get in the dirt

Last fall, I forked over the soil in the annual beds of the herb garden into rough clods. Exposure to alternating freezes and thaws killed many insects and their larvae and eggs, as well as weed seeds, and began to break up the clods into smaller chunks.

I like to begin preparing my seed­beds as early as possible after the ground has thawed. Often, however, the soil is too wet to cultivate without compacting it and destroying its structure. (As a rule, sandy soils and raised beds dry out more quickly than heavy clay soils.) My soil is clay, so I’ve built sev-eral raised beds to help the soil dry faster. To determine whether the soil is ready to work, I squeeze a lump, then tap it; if it crumbles apart, then it’s ready. If the soil remains in a sticky ball, I take care of other garden chores for a few days until the area dries out. I usually fork over a new bed by hand and then rake or rototill it to crumble the clods to a consistent, fine-textured, smooth seedbed.

I love to dig into the very bottom of the compost pile and force the rich black humus through a piece of screen or hardware cloth. The resulting compost is ideal for covering seeds. I till coarser organic matter, such as well-rotted wood chips, straw, and composted chopped garden wastes and kitchen scraps, into the garden now to increase its nutrients and moisture-holding capacity. A thin layer of wood ashes from the fireplace contributes potassium and minerals and helps to make the soil more alkaline. (A simple soil test can tell you whether your soil is acid or alkaline and how much lime or sulfur is needed to correct it.) Herbs can benefit from an application of bone or blood meal, scratched in lightly. These organic additions make the soil richer, lighter, and more crumbly, characteristics that promote excellent root growth. I fertilize herbal trees and shrubs now with a light application of a complete, slow-release inorganic fertilizer, which I repeat in May and again in July according to package directions.

I begin to pull back the mulch from my perennial herbs now so that the returning sun will warm the soil more quickly. Gardeners in colder areas of the country will wait until early April or even later to start removing mulch. I rake over all the beds, working the finer part of the mulch into the top layer of soil while taking care not to disturb any roots or the first shoots of lilies and other slow-starting perennials. Weeds and coarse debris go in the compost pile.

A garden is never finished, never perfect, but the process of continually refining it is satisfying. 

Replanting time

As soon as the ground is dry enough, I start transplanting. Overcrowded perennial herbs need to be divided as soon as new growth starts in the spring. “Traveling” herbs such as bee balm and the mints need to be lifted and replanted elsewhere in the garden or potted up and given away to friends. Others I’ll rearrange according to notes I made last summer on color schemes or growth requirements. Adjusting and readjusting the placement of plants in my garden—which Dan Franklin, an Atlanta landscape designer, refers to as “plants on roller skates”—not only makes them grow better, but it adds to my pleasure. A garden is never finished, never perfect, but the process of continually refining it is satisfying.

To divide overgrown perennial herbs, I begin by digging up the entire clump with a spading fork and shaking or rinsing off soil. I tease apart sections of the crown or cut it into sections with a serrated bread knife. Disease is seldom a problem at this time of year because the plants are growing so fast, but later in the season, I’m apt to dust cut surfaces with a fungicide to prevent the entry of disease organisms. Generally, I save the vigorous shoots in the outer portion of the crown and discard the tired center.

Tricks and tools

Tall, top-heavy perennial herbs, which tend to flop over and are vulnerable to the assaults of wind, rain, and hail, are best staked in early spring, before the new growth emerges. Twiggy branches may be pushed into the ground surrounding the plants to provide support or staked wire hoops used as corsets. I sometimes use inexpensive tomato cages cut in half horizontally with wire cutters and pushed into the ground. The new shoots grow up and conceal these underpinnings. Fennel, blue salvia (Salvia guaranitica), tansy, and peonies are good candidates for staking.

The cuttings of lemon verbena, scented geraniums, sage, rosemary, and honeysuckle that spent the winter in a flat on a heating cable in my hotbed are now heavily rooted. I’ll pot up the young plants into individual pots in early spring before top growth begins, then place them in a ventilated cold frame for protection until warm weather arrives in earnest. The cold frame also holds forced hardy bulbs that have finished blooming. I water them moderately until the foliage matures and later plant them in the garden.

Cold frames need more attention now than during the depths of winter. Whenever the temperature rises above 40°F, in sun or warm rain, I open the lid for ventilation but close it again before sundown. This year I’ve installed automatic vents that open and close according to a heat sensor, whether I’m at home or not. My automatic vents are expensive, but I consider them indispensable. I choose a warm day to water the soil slowly and deeply, avoiding the foliage.

On rainy days, I prepare plant labels. My favorite kind has aluminum stakes and a zinc nameplate. I always use an indelible black marker to write the name on the front side and repeat it in soft lead pencil on the back. Even if the name on the front wears off after three or four years of weathering, the one on the protected back is still legible.

I also go through my tools now, cleaning them, sharpening the edges, and oiling them as needed. It won’t be too soon.

I check the garden for losses and order plants to fill any bare spots or new beds. I’ve spent many a winter evening studying mail-order herb catalogs. Each time I fill out an order, I include a plant that I’ve never grown before: a lavender, an assortment of artemisias for the silver bed, or some unusual hardy or tender bulbs. Each new plant widens my experience as a gardener.

A dozen duties of early spring
Clean, sharpen, and oil all your gardening tools.
2 Prune back your perennial herbs.
3 Gradually pull back the mulch and remove debris from your beds when the weather has warmed sufficiently.
4 Remove undesirable herbs; transplant any that didn’t do well to a more favorable spot.
5 Divide the crowns of overgrown herbs and replant the divisions in amended soil; give away the extras.
6 Turn your compost pile; sift thoroughly decomposed material through screen or hardware cloth.
7 Improve your soil with compost and other organic amendments.
8 Prepare a seedbed by raking or rototilling until the soil is smooth, or prepare flats to germinate seeds under lights. Plan what to sow and when, counting the weeks back from your area’s frost-free date. Many seed packets contain planting information such as the suggested date to sow.
9 Stake herbs that need support while they’re still small.
10 Order new herbs from mail-order or local nurseries.
11 Make labels for new plants.
12 If you don’t have a garden journal, start one.