Get lost, frost... spring garden prep for the backyard gardener.
And so it begins - sneezing. sneezing. And did I mention? More sneezing. Let’s just say, spring allergies used to be insufferable.
However, once I took up gardening and my interest in plants grew - that all seemed to change. In a sense, I changed my perspective on my allergies. I began to view my sneezes as a sign of hope and anticipation for what the season would bring. Sneezing? Just some little reminders from my body that it’s time to start looking at my garden space and creating my plans for the seasons. Itchy eyes? Well, these eyes are about to be looking at some gorgeous blooms. Congestion? I can’t smell anything at the moment, but give me a couple weeks, and I’ll be enjoying the delicious scents of my herb garden.
So, it’s allergy season. But guess what can distract you from your stuffy nose and itchy eyes? Planning for your Spring garden. Now is the time to get rolling on your preparation for the season, and if you’re anything like me, the process can, at times, be a bit intimidating or overwhelming.
Every gardener has their own unique way of growing. Their own planning process, plant preferences, and style. So by no means is this a strict guide on early spring garden prep, but I’d like to offer some tips and advice from a fellow gardener. This post is geared toward those who are relatively new at gardening in a backyard setting.
Early Spring Garden
1. Start a Garden Journal
If you don’t have one already, I highly recommend starting a garden journal. You’d be surprised how much you forget when you don’t record your garden’s progress! A garden journal is a wonderful way to solidify your ideas, track progress, note problems and potential solutions to any roadblocks that you come across along the way. Plus, you can look back at what you’ve planted before. Not only does it serve as a guide for crop rotation, but is a tool for getting your thumb a little greener each season.
2. Survey your Site
Whether you are starting from scratch or planning to install new garden beds, surveying your site is absolutely essential. You’ll want to start by making observations to determine the amount of sunlight in your chosen area. Does the site get full sun? Early morning sun & afternoon shade Full Shade? Knowing the amount of sunlight a site receives is vital for gardening success.
Next, you will want to gain better understanding of the soil of your selected site. Your best bet will be getting your soil tested through the University of Missouri Extension. Follow this link to learn more about how to get soil tested: http://extension.missouri.edu/Website/DisplayPage.aspx?PID=6317&County=stlouis
Once you determine your soil type, pH & nutrient levels - you can have a better idea of what plants may thrive in your selected site. Be sure to note drainage in your area. Is it a low lying area that collects lots of water or on a slope with good drainage? This can also help guide you in choosing the plants that are a right fit.
In the case of existing beds, it’s time to bust out that gardening journal. Take inventory. What do you already have and how is it doing? Check for any plant damage that may have occurred over the winter and see what needs to be cleaned up.
You’ll also want to note the state of any garden hardscaping. If anything has been damaged, shifted, or broken by winter frost and winds, make note of it before your garden takes off and it would be too late to address.
3. Spring cleanup
Before planting, spring cleanup is a must. We recommend fixing any damage to garden hardscape first. Now is the time to repair damaged retaining walls, clean out gutters, fix benches and fences, trellises, raised beds and anything else that needs to be addressed. It’s also a great time to add an extra layer of sealant to any hardscaping constructed out of wood. I highly recommend that you complete any hardscape repair while your plants are still dormant to avoid damaging your lovely plants.
Next, it’s time to get your hands dirty with some garden bed cleanup. Remove any plant debris that may have fallen to the ground to provide a clean foundation for plantings and help prevent risk of infection and pest issues.
Get ahead of weed management by pulling any early spring weeds that may have popped up. An early start on pulling weeds will help make the rest of the season just a little more manageable.
Prune any dead branches or plant material on your trees and shrubs. Plants that bloom in the spring should be pruned shortly after they bloom. Plants that bloom in the summer should be pruned during early spring to stimulate growth. Be sure to read up on pruning techniques, as your plants may have different requirements. Here is a guide by the Missouri Extension Office to help get you started: https://extension2.missouri.edu/mg8.
Cut back any perennial foliage from last year to help make room to stimulate new growth. In addition, it is a great time to divide and transplant summer and fall blooming perennials that have outgrown their space.
4) What do you want to grow?
The first step to picking the right plants is just a bit of introspection. What are your goals? What do you want to learn? What colors and shades do you want to see? Do you want to grow food? Attract wildlife?
I’d recommend using your gardening journal to help identify these answers. Then, you can pick the purpose of your garden. Whether it be beautification, establishing an edible garden, a rain garden to help manage water, or a wildlife garden to help support valuable ecosystems - identifying a purpose is the first step to getting the most out of your gardening experience. This purpose not only helps you establish your goals, but guides you in the design and decision making process.
The next step is absolutely crucial. Do. Your. Research.
There is such a wealth of resources online or at your local library that can tell you everything you want to know about various garden projects.. or stop by Greenscape and our staff of experts can help advise you on making choices for your garden!
You’ll want take the physical attributes of your space into account, then use those as a guide to match them with plants that have those preferences. Researching plant growth habit and growing requirements is essential for creating a layout that works for your space. How tall does it get? Does it spread? Does it prefer well-drained soil or wetter soil? This may seem obvious, but pick plants that work in your spot. Don’t try to force a plant you love to grow in an area that you may want it to, but isn’t good for it. Right plant, right place.
A couple helpful design tips. Contrast your plants with the background color of any building. Planting in odd numbers typically is more pleasing to the eye. Another tip is to tier your plants and orient them so that the tallest plants do not shade out the lower plants. If you are looking for design advice, we have an in-house garden coach at Greenscape to answer any design questions you may have. You can schedule an appointment with her at www.greenscapegardens.com/gardencoaching
Draw out your design on paper or use an online design application to create a guide for yourself. Ask a lot of questions. Then go for it!
5) Start from the Ground Up
So, you’ve surveyed your site and you’ve got your design. What now? It is essential to start from the ground up. Soil health and fertility is one of the most important factors in how successful your garden will be.
There’s a couple things you’ll want to take into account for amending the soil. First, soil texture. If your soil is too sandy, you can amend it with a generous amount of compost. For clay-dominated soil, you can add turfus, gypsum, compost, and sand.
In summation, compost will be your best friend. Organic material such as compost, manure, and/or worm castings do such a wonderful job of providing some of the crucial nutrients and minerals that your plants need to thrive.
You’ll want to add a slow release fertilizer as well. For this we recommend Dr. Earth’s Life Fertilizer, an organic product that we absolutely love at Greenscape.
In addition to fertilizer, we recommend looking at the soil as a living system. You want to support fungal communities that support your plant, namely mycorrhizal fungi. We highly recommend that you add mycorrhizae to your soil to help promote both soil and plant health. This fungi is magical. It basically helps transport crucial nutrients such as potassium to your plants, nutrients that the plant is unable to uptake it on its own.
You’ll also want to amend your soil pH if it is off balance or if you are planting something that requires a specific pH to survive. If your pH is too high/alkaline, you can help lower that pH by adding acids such as lime and peat moss. If your pH is too low/acidic, you can add alkaline amendments such as sulfur.
Depending on what you choose to grow, you may want to consider adjusting your soil amendment plan to meet the plants’ needs.
Just a note, once you have received your soil test results, be sure to check their list of recommendations!
6) Shameless Plug
Once you’ve established your list of plants and design, stop by your favorite local nursery… Greenscape Gardens.... *cough cough*.... and then get planting!
7) Once your Plant Babies are in the Ground
Cover your beds with a couple inches of mulch to help with weed management, but be sure to not mulch right next to the stems, as this could pose a greater risk of root rot. Be prepared to cover your plants if a late-spring frost is in the forecast. Give your plants a little extra TLC while they are getting established. Check on them daily and pay particular attention to whether they are drying out during this sensitive period. In addition, be sure to research potential pest problems with your plant choices so that you are able to identify any issues or changes. It will be very beneficial to track your plants’ progress through the season in your garden journal, which will provide you with the information you need while making choices regarding plant care.
Last but not least, enjoy the heck out of your gorgeous space!
Just a Little Tidbit to Think About
Here’s some general advice, particularly for gardening newbies! You don’t have to be perfect. Just trying and giving your best is something to be proud of. If an idea doesn’t work, then you’ll learn from it and become a better gardener because of it. For me, gardening is half planning and half experimentation. It’s a process, not a destination - an enjoyable and rewarding one at that! I can full-heartedly say that gardening has made me a more patient and peaceful human being. It gives me that break I need from my busy day to day life. Even when something doesn’t go as planned, it teaches me to not sweat the small stuff and to celebrate the little wins. So, have fun with it - and don’t put too much pressure on yourself to be an expert overnight! Just pay attention to your plants, care for them, and there is no doubt that you will reap the benefits that your garden has to offer you.
written by Hillary Fitz - Marketing and Community Engagement at Greenscape Gardens